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I'm getting to the stage in life where I want to start enjoying activities that get me out of the house and not necessarily about staying in all the time and I think that I've found something that for me hits the spot.
Ever since I was a kid and was taken by my parents to the National Rail Museum at York I've had an interest in Steam Trains. I am a regular visitor to the Bluebell Railway in Sussex as well, but lately I have wanted to do a full excursion and basically have a day out. I'm not afraid of meeting people anyway, that is part of my job at work. So when I discovered Part Time Rail's website. I realised that there was a God after all and that this company had scheduled something that perfectly fit what I wanted to do.
Past Time Rail is an enthusiast's dream, a small company based in Staffordshire, which organise Rail trips across the country. Using locomotion of all types of Steam and Diesel, Past Time Rail schedule journeys the length and breadth of the country. Although Past Time Rail don't necessarily own any rail stock themselves the engines and carriages are all chartered from private owners, who are more than happy to show off there engines and rail stock. You think about it the best thing they can have done is to get a clip on the Internet or a place like You Tube showing the engine at work pulling the twelve carriages behind in on an excursion. So bottom line is that everyone has a good experience. Even the photographers who you see standing up to their ankles in mud to get the shot of the train as it speeds past!
The website is easy to use and full of information that tells you exactly what the precise route is and the expected time of arrival and departure. For each journey you are given the option of Standard Class or First Class and depending on the type of trip you choose will cost anywhere from £57.50 to £159 respectively. On some trips the option of Silver Service is also available which really does bring the whole experience of train travel back from the past.
Having decided that I really wanted to do this, I went ahead and booked via the website. This took me no more than three minutes and was clear concise and very easy to use; in fact the site told me if there were seats available before I made the booking which eliminated the disappointment factor straight away. An e-mail dropped into my Inbox just 4 minutes after I had confirmed my card details and advised me that my booking had been confirmed and here were my booking reference and contact details should I have any issues. Very professional process, performed in a very clean style.
The trip that I booked through the website cost £69.50. This was the Golden Arrow Folkestone Harbour day trip. Included in the price was a stop over at Canterbury for a couple of hours and time put aside to watch the Steam Train perform a ascent and descent of the famous Folkestone Harbour Line. The start time was 0828 at Victoria Station, which I have to say was a bit of a killer when this was on a cold Saturday morning in January! Arrival time back at Victoria was 1900 that evening, so this was going to be a long day. Which given the amount that I had paid for a ticket was actually good value for money.
I have to say that I was impressed from the start as the condition of the engine that was used was immaculate and seeing No 34067 Tangmere pull into Victoria made the instant seem a very Agatha Christie moment, as with all things of this nature there were plenty of photos' being taken at this point. What I found funny was the reaction of the passengers leaving on trains departing from other Platforms, as the sight of a huge Southern green Battle of Britain Class A4 Locomotive that was nearly 80 years old was truly something to behold. So with 0828 fast approaching we boarded the train and found our seats. We departed Victoria bang on time!
The condition of the carriages was also very good, the seating plan was that four people to a table, so the opportunity to meet new people was something that I grasped. After all we were going to be on the train for the best part of nine hours so to sit there in total silence would have been rude. All carriages were clean and smelt fresh rather the usual damp type smell that you tend to get in heritage stock. The lavatories had regular checks performed upon them and again were clean without the lingering odours that you get on the newer trains today.
When you board, there is a brochure already given out to everyone describing what will be seen out of the window on the journey and can be used as a guide to the trip. The level of detail that this goes into is quite granular and makes interesting reading.
As Tangmere is a Battle of Britain class steam locomotive, respect is paid to the RAF. At the first water stop just outside of Tonbridge the flags of the RAF were placed on the front of the train. I thought this was very poignant given the area of Kent that we were going to visit anyway and showed the high level of thought, respect and preparation given to the organisation of the day.
The staff were polite and gave a high level of customer service throughout the day, if asked any questions they were more than happy to provide answers, all the staff have a high interest in this type of travel so you have the knowledge at hand if you need anything answered. As ticket checks were performed on our way through Clapham Junction the staff stopped to have a chat to passengers and made everyone feel extremely welcome. Don't forget the carriages have no PA system at all as the stock for this journey dated back to the 1960's. So if there were any announcements about possible travel issues that impacted the timings then everything had to be done by walking through the carriages. Regular tidy up's were also performed as there was a small coffee bar on board that served hot drinks so about every 45 minutes someone removed rubbish from the tables and left the carriage looking tidy.
On the return journey the Train Manager walked through the carriages and was talking to people about the day and asking for any feedback that they felt was appropriate, from what I could make out the biggest thing was the delays that were experienced as it chewed into the time we had to explore Canterbury. From just over two hours, it was shrunk down to just an hour and fifteen minutes, just enough to get a pint and some food and get back on the train. It was a shame but we at least had an hour to stretch our legs around the city itself. The journey back took all round the North Kent Coast, only stopping at Whitstable for a water stop. We arrived back at Victoria bang on 1900.
Overall I was impressed with Past Time Rail; they have a product that is enticing to buy and gives a lot of enjoyment to people. I was one of them who enjoyed the experience of travelling the whole day by Steam and was generally impressed with the effort and the lengths that staff went to on the journey to ensure everything was satisfactory.
The question is.... would I use them again? The answer is yes I would and would thoroughly recommend them as well. The tickets turned up by post within the stated times, which is one week before the trip and were sent with a covering letter explaining what to do upon arrival and where to go at Victoria.
As this was my first journey I feeling a bit of a stranger to begin with and thought this would be an "anorak's outing" to the coast, it wasn't at all like that and is a stigma that I can safely say has been banished forever. Everyone was friendly and conversation was taking place throughout the whole carriage. The mix of passengers ranged from young children, families, right up to pensioners who all have stories to tell and things to talk about regarding their time as drivers or engineers of trains, fascinating to hear and to talk with them. I have some great memories of this day and will be doing further trips with Past Time Rail in the future, not sure where I'm going to go, but I'll know when I get there! I think being totally spontaneous with some thing like this is also perhaps the better way.
YouTube has a number of clips from the day; the trip I went on was on January 24th. If you would like to see them then please type in Golden Arrow Tangmere Folkestone Harbour.