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The Polytechnic Special Excursion Train

From time to time, I see photographs that are intriguing or catch the imagination. This week generated one such example that I felt was worth sharing. In addition to being a rather wonderful timepiece of Edwardian travel, this view of a Highland Railway series 1 castle on the viaduct at Killiecrankie prompts a number of interesting discussion points.

Dealing with the purely railway one first; the constitution of the train. This is largely made up of East Coast Joint Stock coaches from the early part of the last century, supplemented by a Great Northern dining car and one NER coach. The East Coast Joint Stock Co was a joint undertaking of the three companies that made up the east coast route from Kings Cross to Scotland to provide coaching stock that could run across three company’s lines. Back in 2016, I showed my part build of a very similar coach to those on the viaduct for you to compare. By the way, before long there will be a further instalment in this series, as I have made progress with it and have a pretty much finished coach.

What initially surprised me was that all of the stock was third class; which was very unusual for trains of this time when railway travel was proportionally much more expensive and thus attracted the “monied classes” rather more than today. My colleagues in the Highland Railway Society of course not only had the answer for this but there was even an article on it in their journal a few years back written by John Roake. The train is obviously a special rather than a day to day timetabled service and it transpires that it was one of a series organised by the Polytechnic Touring Association in the beginning of the 20th century. This organisation had its origins as a travel society of the Regent Street Polytechnic (which has developed into the University of Westminster) who arranged tours within the UK, Europe and further afield for its students before subsequently becoming and independent business in its own right. In time, it became a fully fledged travel business and once it had merged with a firm called Sir Henry Lunn Ltd, became a household name to people of my generation – Lunn Poly (now part of Tui).

From around 1901 rail tours of the Scottish highlands were organised in specially commissioned services across the summer season. These were advertised as “a week in bonny Scotland for three guineas“. This was equivalent to a month’s average wage at the time, so even though the service was not in luxurious first class, it was hardly for the masses either. This is rather evidenced by the finery of both the ladies and gentlemen that are visible in the picture. The tour visited a number of Scottish beauty spots, often combined with a steamer trip to complete a round circuit or, as in this case a walk through the scenery to Dunkeld. Dunkeld is 16 miles from Killiecrankie, so they got a fair share of exercise!

The picture is a posed shot and is likely to be an official view for publicity purposes and what caught my eye was the participants standing on the viaduct’s parapet. The viaduct is 54 feet high, so these people are standing about seven stories up on an ledge that is a foot or so wide! Can you imagine the health and safety police sanctioning that now? Mind you, when you look closely at the picture you can see that many of them are leaning gingerly back on the carriage stock – so it appears that they were not oblivious of the fall!

And to sign off, this is an image from about the same place approximately 80 years later in July 1985; a class 47 on what is probably the northbound Clansman service from London Euston (photo by Eastwood 4117). The trees have gown up somewhat in the intervening years – as they have since, the view is largely obscured now but the walk along the river is still worthwhile if you are in the area.

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