Those of you of a certain vintage will remember when the Network Southeast area was created in the late 80's, there were a number of Saturdays designated Network Days, where, for a fiver I think it was, you could ride unlimited in the NSE area all day. I remember walking up the entire length of a 12 car Waterloo - Portsmouth service, a 12 CIG, and there was not a single seat available. Those Network Days were hugely popular yet have never been repeated, mainly due to the splitting up of the network. Yes, various operators have rover tickets, but as a rule these have relatively small areas or a limited Network. A national rail rover does exist, but a 7 day rover will set you back £510, so in reality you're probably better off booking everything in advance if you know what you are doing.
So when Southeastern announced, with only 7 days notice, that they were doing their Supersaturday ticket, which gave unlimited travel on Southeastern services, including HS1 for £20 I started salivating at the prospect. Not only that but they set a challenge to see who could cover the entire network in a day. Red rag to a bull that. Hence most of the week was spent poring over timetables, getting frustrated with nonsensical connections, and a lot of shredded itineraries. The conclusion was finally reached that to cover everywhere in one day was impossible, so I dispensed with the Tonbridge - Hastings branch, which was the most time consuming, and concentrated on getting round everywhere else, which isn't as easy as it seems, as a fair bit of doubling back is required. So itinerary finally worked out, submitted to Southeastern, a reliable car borrowed, and at precisely 0307 I left my Suffolk village for Greenhithe in Kent, where I had decided to start and finish my day. Just a word about the disappointing quality of many of the photos. It was a miserable day weather wise, and my camera is not good at taking moving images in the dark, so apologies for the blurriness in some.
|My Supersaturday ticket at Greenhithe|
Having grown up on the Southeastern network it was like turning the clock back 40 odd years, except the trains were different. None of my beloved slam door trains now, but Networkers, Electrostars and Javelins covering areas some of which haven't changed in half a century, and others totally unrecognisible. Here is the network.
One thing you will notice about the network is, London terminals excepted, how few dead ends there are. Even Hastings can't really be regarded as a dead end, well not in railway terms anyway, as other services pass through it. So that leaves Bromley North, Hayes and Sheerness. When you think we have Sheringham, Great Yarmouth, Felixstowe, Harwich, Clacton, Walton, Sudbury and others up here it shows how comprehensively Kent is still connected.
|465183 at Greenhithe|
My first train of the day was the 0527 from Greenhithe to Hither Green. Also the first class 465 Networker of the day. When these trains were launched in 1992 I resented them as they were replacing the old slam door EPB's which I loved and had grown up with. Now, though, I appreciate what quite superb trains they are. The ride they give is, in my opinion, unparalleled. They accelerate fast and brake smoothly. Comfortable seats and good heating complete an all round decent experience, and they do not feel 26 years old. It is bordering on the criminal that there is an uncertain future for the class 365 Networker Expresses, as they are far superior to the 319's currently being given new leases of life elsewhere.
|The uid 376 at Hither Green|
At Hither Green I changed onto a Class 376 Electrostar for the one stop journey to Grove Park. I was hoping to travel on more of these as I've yet to give them a real workout, but alas it was not to be, and this was my only 376 of the day. But we got to Grove Park in time to make my very tight connection onto the Bromley North branch, my first new territory of the day. It only takes five minutes to travel the line, operated by a 2 car class 466, and I gave my sympathies to the driver who must have lost count of the number of times he had to change ends that morning!
|466020 at a deserted Bromley North|
A tactical cheat followed, as I caught a bus from Bromley North to Hayes, the other dead end in the area, and also the only other new territory for me. I'd been as far as Elmers End, which connects with the Croydon Tramlink, but not the section between Hayes and Elmers End. Another 8 car 465 took me to Charing Cross, where I had a 30 min stop for breakfast before hitting the mainline.
|465244 at Hayes|
The class 375 Electrostars replaced the mainline slam door stock, and I'm not sure I've forgiven them yet. Yes the ride is quiet and smooth, but the trains are just soulless moving metal tubes. I'm also not completely sure the seats haven't got harder since their recent mid life refresh. I do like the colour scheme now, but there just isn't the anticipation of a train journey there was with the slam doors - the air brake tests, the vacuum pumps doing their thing, even the sound of the doors slamming. It was an atmosphere we'll never get back, and that's a shame, if romantically nostalgic. Will these trains be as revered when they retire? I somewhat doubt it.
|375616 at Charing Cross|
Anyhow the 375 whisked me undramatically to Tonbridge, an old stamping ground where, as a sixth form student I spent many happy hours watching the old Hastings diesels, Uckfield thumpers, Class 101's on the Reading line, and boat trains from Dover and Folkestone hammering through. The station has barely changed since then, although the layout to the country end of the station certainly has. It was here I changed onto a 3 car 375 for my trip up the Medway Valley Line, a true homecoming as I lived on that line for the first 22 years of my life. Most of it still looks the same, although it was a real shock to see Aylesford paper mill flattened.
| 375306 at Tonbridge|
Strood is one of the coldest stations I know. It has its own microclimate, which is roughly 30 degrees colder than it is outside the station. It has always been like that, and I have spent more hours shivering there than I care to think of. In recent years, though, Strood has had a change of identity. Whereas it used to be where the fast trains to Victoria branched off, leaving Strood passengers to catch the slow trains to Charing Cross, now the High Speed trains stop there, and have halved the journey time to London. The class 395 Hitachi Javelin rolled in, and off to St Pancras I whizzed.
|395002 Seb Coe at Strood|
No time to linger there, not even to get a decent picture, as I literally jumped off one Javelin onto another, which was going to be my home for the next 140 minutes. Southeastern High Speed operate circular journeys from St Pancras, via Ashford, Dover, Ramsgate, Faversham, Gravesend and reverse. I was travelling to Faversham via Ashford, and the train was packed. I was quite surprised Southeastern hadn't lengthened more trains in anticipation of the extra passenger numbers and this was the biggest argument as to why they should have. 6 coaches was just not enough, and I was forced to sit on a pulldown seat in the wheelchair area which was devoid of any padding whatsoever! It did have a plug though, which was invaluable.
| Quick change at St Pancras International|
The Javelins look good, go like stink, and do a job. But the seats are hard, don't give good back support, and the interiors are devoid of any character whatsoever. I found over 2 hours on one tough going, whilst appreciating very few people actually spend that long on them. I was grateful for my recharged phone battery when I got off at Faversham, but equally grateful to just get off it!
|395028 at Faversham|
This is where it got interesting. To do all the routes around East Kent takes some planning. It's impossible to do without some doubling back, and some of the connections are frankly hopeless. During the week there are a couple of trains from Ramsgate to Sandwich, for example, that stop at Minster and reverse. However, on a Saturday if you want to travel from Minster to Sandwich you have to travel via Ramsgate, and endure a 58 minute wait as the train to Sandwich leaves 2 minutes before the train from Minster arrives. Therefore you can't do the Canterbury West branch, changing at Ramsgate onto the Dover branch. It is not the only example. If you do Ramsgate to Ashford via Canterbury West, hoping to change onto the Dover line there forget it - it's a 50 minute wait there too, so you will see why many different routes had to be attempted before I finally worked it out.
|375827 at Faversham|
A swift journey from Faversham to Dover on another 375 and I was back on a Javelin returning to Ashford.
|3 375's and a Javelin at Dover Priory|
There was only a 20 minute wait for the Canterbury West branch, but a shock was in store. The 375/9's are a high density seating version of the Electrostar, which replaced the VEPS, and it's fair to say were not popular with passengers or staff alike when they entered service. They were the first to have "ironing board" seats, and so when an 8 car 375/9 came rolling into Ashford I clenched in anticipation. They may have had a bit more padding put in during the refresh but if so it's not that noticeable. I would truly hate to commute on these trains.
|375920 at Ashford International|
But it got me to Ramsgate, another old stamping ground, just in time to cross over and get the train back to Faversham, my 3rd Javelin, and on to Sittingbourne, to do the third and final dead end.
|395013 at Ramsgate|
The Isle of Sheppey has never been a favourite place of mine. I'm told whenever we went there when I was young I would sprout horns and turn into the devil child, which I didn't do anywhere else, and I've never really felt comfortable when there, for reasons I'll probably never know. It's not what you'd call exotic either, making Lowestoft look like Monte Carlo, but had to be done, so now with the weather really closing in my little 466 took me on a rather uninspiring trip to Sheerness and back, including a Conductor who seemed as enthusiastic to be there as I was.
|466003 at Sittingbourne|
Now I should point out that despite the criticisms of the trains, and dislike for Sheerness, I was really enjoying myself. Everything was on time, the Twitter banter with the guys at Southeastern was good, as was watching other people's progress round the network. It was so good seeing old places and areas from my past again, and it was only 1710. I'd been on trains nearly 12 hours but still had another 7 1/2 hours to go! Part Two coming soon.