#369 – Union of South Africa on the East Lancs Railway


If I could draw an automotive comparison to the sound of a streamlined A4 steam loco it would be to a flat 6 Porsche engine – a taut, highly tuned mechanical beat with the underlying threat of huge power. I’m not well up on the different noises of steam locomotives, but hearing the Union of South Africa (or USA as it’s been nearly abbreviated to) on the latest 3P20 charter at the east Lancs Railway gave me a new appreciation for this kind of thing.

While the A4’s are of course renowned for their high speed London to Edinburgh runs, epitomised by the immortal Mallard in 1939, they were also to be seen on high speed freight runs. So when given the option of seeing USA on a charter hauling a freight train or a passenger set, I chose the passenger option. To my eyes, seeing an A4 hauling wagons is like seeing a Maserati towing a caravan or a race horse pulling a Brewers dray – rare, and thankfully so.


Of the surviving locos, I’d only ever seen Mallard, and that was in the National Railway Museum in York, and a striking thing it is too, positioned next to the equally striking Japanese bullet train. From a photographers perspective, it’s a bloody nightmare though. Seeing USA out on the track was a different proposition altogether and gave me a new appreciation for its styling.

Like the wonderful noise it makes, the styling is taut and muscular, like a lean light heavyweight boxer. But the wonderful sweep of the line above the wheels, which were originally semi covered, was something I’d overlooked before and it intrigued me.


Charters of course are a double edge sword. On the one hand, you have the opportunity  to shoot in the best locations, in the best light, exhaust effects on demand, and multiple run pasts. However there are constraints to work within – the obvious H&S issues of being on a live railway line, plus you are kind of restricted to shooting (to an extent) with the rest of the group so that you don’t get in someone else’s shot. So what better way to deal with these constraints than by giving myself some more? I now shoot only with prime lenses on charters for their superior image quality, and lightness. I previously carted round a 28-70, 16-35 and a 70-300, which are all brilliant lenses, but big and heavy, so carrying 3 primes in my gilet pockets is far less effort and allows for superior results.

The other thing with fast primes is that they are all F1.4 or F1.8, which allows for some interesting depth of field experiments. As noted, A4’s are striking looking engines, so I tried using a very shallow depth of field to separate the nose of the engine, the bit which really distinguishes it from other engines, from the background. Has it worked? To a degree, although it goes against the established aesthetic, which is probably why it takes some getting used to.





But for wider, more traditional shots, a much greater depth of field is required. Unfortunately the light and wind direction were not really in our favour and the images were somewhat unremarkable compared to some from the day before.


‘Little Burrs’ is off limits normally, but it was out of the wind, so the exhaust wasn’t billowing all over the place like it was at ‘Big Burrs’ just up the line. A spot for a wider angle lens, the 35mm in this instance.




Big Burrs and the exhaust is getting blown over the other side of the line.


The East Lancs Railway does have some reasonably good line side vantage points, although encroaching undergrowth and tress doe restrict some of these, especially when trees are in leaf. Summerseat viaduct is a very popular spot on steam galas, and does allow a half decent view of the engine as it passes, although for something as big as an A4, timing is crucial.


Similarly, there is also a view of the train across one of the bridges approaching Burrs, somewhere I’d never tried before, but I took a quick look before leaving and it looks like a good spot for the winter months when there are fewer leaves on the trees, and a nice afternoon light glinting off the boiler.


Of course, it’s not all rural locations, but the urban locations around Bury aren’t really accessible. Even those around the railway station are only accessible on occasions like this, but it did allow for some variety as I do like to capture the people side of the railways where I can.



Finally, some alternative views. I always try to mess around and look for something different, away from the crowd. This isn’t easy as you are always conscious of getting in other peoples shots, but a lunchtime stop at Ramsbottom station allowed some time and space to approach from different angles, as well as amusing the stuff on the platform.







My rarely used 20mm came out of the bag for this, it was as close as I managed to get before having to move on. It’s not a bad lens actually as it doesn’t exaggerate perspective as much as something like my old 14mm, or the wide end of the 16-35.

#293 – Re-visiting photos 2

More reworked photos!

These are from Edenwood Mill, which if still standing, must be a pile of soggy wood and rubble as it was in a right state back in 2008.

This one hasn’t really benefitted much from the monochrome conversion compared to some, but the lens corrections have slightly improved things.



The next photos are also taken In Edenwood Mill, in the brick building on the photo above. They are a familiar composition for me – looking out from an internal window, and although I use it a lot, there has to be something outside to actually look at for it to work.


This first one possibly lacks a focal point, and the boarded windows at the top just seem to ruin the photo in colour.


So here we have the rework. A square crop removes the distraction of the windows adjacent to the central window, and the monochrome conversion has lessened the impact of the boarded windows at the top. If anything, these are now more a part of the overall scene somehow. The possible lack of an exterior focal point is not really an issue, and you can tell that the dark are in the centre is still a river.


Another square crop, and some tweaks to the angle and shape of the window have vastly improved this, in fact it works very well in colour as well, once I’d boosted the contrast and saturation. But the monochrome version has the edge, especially when part of a larger set.


So there you have it, images that I initially discarded, but have managed to use. I guess that the lesson here is that, having some time apart from the images can lead you to look at them differently. Also, the judicious use of cropping has transformed the images – there’s still a train of thought which says get it right in camera, which is an admirable sentiment, but if I followed it, I’d need to carry round a square format camera with me everywhere, as well as an SLR.

#283 – East Lancs Railway Photo Locations 8 – Stubbins

Heading north out of Ramsbottom, turn left after the garage on the right hand side. This will take you up past a playing field to a level crossing. This is a excellent place to catch the trains leaving Ramsbottom as they are working pretty hard to get up the incline to Rawtenstall. Some people venture over the track, but I’ve always felt that standing by the crossing gate gives the best view.

#282 – East Lancs Railway Photo Locations 7 – Ramsbottom Station

Ramsbottom station is a nice little to photograph, as it’s got some nice period features, especially since the addition of the wrought iron canopy over the up platform. This is adjacent to the main station buildings, and combined with the water tank and general platform paraphenalia, gives plenty of potential.

The station is a passing point for the up and down trains, and so trains will often spend some time in the station, which gives plenty of opportunities for photography. Arguably the most popular spot is on the footbridge which links the two platforms, either looking down onto the trains in the station, or looking the other way (north) at the departing or arriving trains.

During the winter months, when night falls early, the station is also a decent spot for night photography, but this only tends to be during galas when the trains run a litle later than normal. Either platform will do, it all depends on which way the engines are facing.

It’s also a good spot to indulge in some people photography, as the crew will probably be out and about, sometimes taking on water which is always worth watching.

If you get off at Ramsbottom for a bit, do have a walk up the hill into the town, and I can recommend the chippy half way up the hill on the left hand side – it’s always busy but very good!


Just north of the station, on the east side of the track, is a small garden area which runs alongside the track for a bit. It’s normally fairly well populated with photographers, especially on event days, but is worth a look.

#275 – East Lancashire Railway Photo Locations – Introduction

As a regular visitor to the East Lancashire Railway over the last ten years or so, I’ve got to know many of the best locations for lineside photography. Regular readers will be aware of my tendency to look for something beyond the standard ‘train in station’ photographs, and as quite a lot of the lineside is accessible, I thought I’d share some locations.

This guide is somewhat incomplete as it only has one location on the Bury to Heywood stretch, but this section of line is somewhat uninteresting from a photographic perspective, and the location I’ve listed is the only I’ve visited, unlike the rest of the line.

I will also be covering a couple of places that are not accessible without permission. While I don’t always bother with permission for my urbex photography, I always do with my railway photography.

As an introduction to the line, it’s one of the few heritage lines in the northwest of england, and by far the longest, in fact it’s one of the longer heritage lines in the country. It runs through a diverse landscape – through a town centres, suburbs and the countryside. The main station, Bury, is a large station and once functioned as the towns main station, and remains substantially as it was in British Rail days, as does the station at Ramsbottom, although much reduced from it’s heyday. Rawtenstall is a new station, albeit built in a traditional way, and is a terminus at the northern end of the line, as further progress is blocked by modern developments.

Although the line has little real prospect of adding any more miles of track (although an extension to Castleton has been mooted), future developments are likely to be at the railways Buckley Wells sheds, and possibly around the Heywood station.

The line is on an incline more or less all the way from Bury to Rawtenstall, so if you want to see an engine working (relatively) hard, then you will want to see it heading north up the line from Bury, as it’s downhill all the way back. Working hard is a relative concept of course, with a speed limit of 25 mph like all heritage lines, larger engines aren’t exactly taxed on this line when hauling only 8 coaches or so. Still, unless it’s the summer, you will see a nice head of steam when setting off from stations and up some of the gradients.

One thing I am often conscious of is backgrounds, and I’ve chosen a lot of these spots because of the backgrounds and or foregrounds.

The line is very much British Rail themed, and is home to both steam and diesels. I have no personal interest in diesel traction, and all the photographs in this series will feature steam, but the locations are fine for both types of traction.

#234 – Super D Part 3 – riding the line

A few more random shots from the day!

Riding on the rear verandah of the guardsvan gave some different views than you’d get from sitting in a carriage. This is looking back down the line in Brooksbottom Tunnel.

Not sure how to describe these lights, but they are hung on the back and front of the train. This is the one hung on the back of the guardsvan, and is actually a candle, which surprised me.

A deserted Ramsbottom station. The canopy has greatly improved the station in my opinion, would be nice to have something on the other side, but I can’t see that happening unless another canopy becomes available from Network Rail. In retrospect, I should have straightened out the paper mill chimney on the left, but it’s probably going to be heading that direction anyway soon as the mill closed last year and has been largely demolished.

#142 – East Lancashire Tornado (again)

Didn’t get chance to actually ride behind Tornado last week, partially due to other commitments, partially due to the fact that I knew it’d be packed. So I left it a week and headed to Ramsbottom on a rather nice day.

Nikon D700, 16-35mm, ISO200, 1/500 @ F11

Now if on the off chance you read this blog regularly, you’ll know of my aversion to taking pictures in stations. However, the purpose of this trip was to actually ride the train rather than to photograph it from the lineside, so photography was secondary, but I packed a camera nonetheless. We were fortunate that Ramsbottom station was rather quiet when we got there, in fact, the doors were still shut until about 10 minutes before the train was scheduled to arrive. I say scheduled, as in actuality, it arrived about 10-15 minutes late, which is not uncommon on the East Lancs for some reason. But, perhaps due to the relative earliness, or the fact it wasn’t a steam gala, the station was relatively free of passengers, which meant some nice uncluttered views. Past experience has shown me that the engine will tend to pull up at or near the water tower, and as this makes a nice piece of the station to include (along with the brazier), I decided to use this as a frame. As luck would have it, the train pulled up exactly where I wanted it to, which also allowed me to get the paper mill chimney in as well, which provides an appropriate background  – after all, Ramsbottom is a town synonymous with that industry.

After pondering briefly why there were so many hi-viz clad photographers at the trackside (the East Lancs doesn’t issue trackside passes), it was nice to sit and watch the countryside pass by, as opposed to standing in the countryside and watch the train pass by, which is what I usually do. But of course, despite being a relatively long line for a heritage line, the reality is that the distance between stations is no more than 10 minutes, even when travelling at a leisurely 25mph. But there’s no rush, it’s a Saturday morning, and we’ve nowhere to get to.

And so to Rawtenstall, notable for not many things really, although the station platform is surprisingly long. That said, our train nearly filled it, as all of Tornado’s trains had notably more carriages on than regular service trains, such was it’s popularity. Now in my experience, if you’re going to take pictures at Rawtenstall station then the best place is at the far end of the platform, away from the station building. There are 3 reasons why you shouldn’t go to the station end – 1) everyone else will be there trying to get a picture, 2) the engine doesn’t actually stay there for very long as it is uncoupled and then reversed back up the line to run round, and 3) the view is crap.

Nikon D700, 28-70mm, ISO200, 1/80 @ F16

This being the end of the line and there being nothing worth doing in Rawtenstall, we headed back south to Ramsbottom and then Bury. The railway are fortunate to have a quite large station at Bury, and one that is relatively modern by heritage railway standards, with many of the current structures dating back to the 1950’s. We decided to hop off the train here rather than go to Heywood, a place that makes Rawtenstall look like Monte Carlo. The facilities at Bury are very good, with a buffet on one platform and a very good bar on the other, while in the station proper there is an excellent shop, although we only got as far as the A1 trust stall selling all manner of Tornado goodies.

Buy the time we’d sampled the bacon sandwiches in the bar (not bad at all), it looked like the cast of Ben Hur had descended on the platform for the arrival of Tornado. Any possibility of interesting photography was eliminated by the fact that the background to the up line was a stone wall. and also by the fact that by the time the train stopped, the engine was forward of the end of the platform. Wide angle lens to the rescue, although it hardly salvaged the situation from a photographic perspective.

Nikon D700, 16-35mm, ISO250, 1/30 @ F11

Next and final stop was back to Ramsbottom. The East Lancs is a mix of urban, suburban and rural landscapes, all within a few miles of each other, and it alternates quite quickly from rubbish dumps to open countryside to parkland back to an urban landscape on arrival in Ramsbottom. Sure it’s not got the beauty of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, but hey, the line starts in the suburbs of Manchester (or Greater Manchester if you insist), so you’re not going to get breathtaking vistas.

And that was that. Further crowds awaited the train in Ramsbottom, further confirming it’s celebrity status. In fact people of all ages were present on the platform, as well as pressed up against the fencing around the crossing, mobile phone cameras held aloft to catch a snap. As there were too many people for me to bother photographing  trains, I decided it was far more entertaining to photograph the people instead.


Nikon D700, 16-35mm, ISO200, 1/160 @ F11

 Well done to the East Lancs for getting Tornado to the railway, let’s hope she’s here again soon:)