Last weekend fate decreed I take a journey on a railway train.  I have an ambivalent relationship with railway trains.Gresley

On the one hand, I cannot be unmoved by the sight of a rushing beast as it pounds across an open landscape; a silver streak, as determined as a serpent in pursuit of unseen prey.   Although never one of that sad, damp cluster of youths who gathered for hours of waiting on platforms with notebooks and pencils numbly clutched for a glimpse of the ‘Sir Nigel Gresley’, I admit steam locomotives inspired awe in me.  And the power that moved so many to anorak-dom is, to some extent, with me still.   Gone are the smoking demons with their cannonades of fiery breath, but the size is still there, the speed burgeons; and we are all, in some degree, impressed by speed, aren’t we?

There is another hand, though.  I am rarely a passenger now.  Those platforms and the icy blast of a north-westerly in the first light of morning or the last tick of the midnight clock have lost their charm.  So has the companionship that comes with a shared cause, the excitement of spotting a roaring, steam-belching Standard Class 9F hauling wagons in an endless caravan through Exeter St. David’s or a Princess Class breathlessly trundling the more usual 12 carriages into position on platform 5.  Gone are the days.  The loudest sound this morning is the scream of protest from my credit card as I pay my fare.  Trains all look alike these days – or they do, at least, to me.

The ruthless efficiency of modern rail travel should be anathema to one whose roots are so firmly planted in the steam age:  should be, but not.   There is something astounding about the 12:14 to Plymouth which actually arrives at 12:14; something even more profoundly impressive about the smooth, quiet comfort of the journey – mobile phones and tablets notwithstanding.   I enjoy the efficiency, but equally I am quietly gratified when something goes just a little bit wrong.

Oh yes, it still happens!

Back to the weekend and myself, settling down to a comfortable transition from York to Manchester Piccadilly on a train that calls itself royally the ‘Trans-Pennine Express’, which is really a collection of carriage units fused together – a sort of multi-bendy-bus on rails.  With everything so linked, there is an element of shared experience that can surprise.  And surprise it did.

Our departure was a little delayed.  The train’s announcer was extremely apologetic and very precise.  “As those passengers who have ridden with us from Scarborough will be aware, a passenger was taken ill, requiring the train’s toilets (note the plural) to be cleaned.”

Amusement, at first.   Sardonic smiles induced by excess detail.  Did we really need to know?

Well, yes.

“Because of this, passengers who need our facilities are requested to only use the toilet in Carriage B.  We apologise once again for this inconvenience.”

So the train waited a little longer at York, while I watched earnest staff with cleaning apparatus (no, no full body suits) bustling back and forth.  I also wondered, assuming the train would have at least five or six (let’s use gentle language) rest rooms, just how peripatetic our erstwhile sickly passenger had managed to be?  In the throes of a dose of the trots, just how much trotting can actually be involved?

Finally the train moved.  The engines gave their initial burst of energy.  The air conditioning kicked in.  Remember my observation about closely linked carriage units?   If we needed any more immediate reminder of this poor passenger’s misfortune it was delivered to us, pungently, by courtesy of the aircon.   It was an aroma swift to spread, intense, and slow to disperse.  I shall remember it for a while yet.  So will everyone who rode that train.  We arrived at my destination on time, whereupon the announcer advised everybody who wanted to travel on to change to another train that was lined up and waiting for them because “This unit really has to be taken to the depot for maintenance.”  The only entertainment that remained was in relaying that message to a very friendly but equally resolute family of travellers from overseas who wanted to stay with the train they assumed would take them on to Manchester Airport.  The problem was one of communication.  No-one could work out what language they spoke.

So I reached my journey’s end, reflecting that no matter how effective the tools, the railway system of now is as vulnerable, in its way, to disruption as ever it was.   Where the mass transportation of people is concerned, it always will be.   Technology may provide the key to infallibility, but someone, somewhere will always be available to tap the wrong key.

The attraction – yes the attraction – of railway travel in the past may have been lent the rose tinted lens of time, but I recall it with some pleasure.  Despite the absence of ‘Sir Nigel Gresley’ whenever I was around, smoky old carriages pushed by a sad tank engine , as far from the big blue A4 as the mutt chewing chicken bones from our dustbin is removed from Crufts’ triumphant West Highland Terrier, held romance for me.

The British temperament, you see, is not equipped to deal with the open-plan nature of modern transport.  Our railway history was writ in conveyances made up of compartments – partitions and doors to defend us from the public gaze.  We might be forced to share our seating space with six or seven fellow travellers, but we would never be required to speak to them.  We would be content to sit on seats stuffed with horsehair by smoky windows that opened wide enough to wave a brolly at a reticent porter, as long as we could complete the Times crossword before we reached Waterloo.   There would be no inconvenient air-conditioning smells, nor would passengers be confined to only one rest room.   There was no air conditioning, and if there was a communication corridor (which there was, sometimes) each carriage would have facilities – and sometimes they worked.

Arrival?   The timetables were always elaborate and often comprehensible; but they were more inclined to wishful prognosis than achievable goal.   12:14?   Possible, but unlikely.   This afternoon?

Yes, very probably.

Have I finished this piece?

Yes.  Very probably…



  1. I used to travel from Stockport to Edale by steam train. Each compartment seated 6 but once in there you could not wander between compartments as there was no corridor and hence no access to the loos. Not a real problem as the journey wasn’t that long.
    I loved the feel of the train and all the sounds it made on the journey, especially on the rails. I loved the majesty of the engines when I got off.
    From a different station the family might travel to Blackpool and those carriages had access to other compartments, great for people watching. Again the engine was always a magnificent beast of hardly reined power bursting to get out. There just isn’t any of that feeling travelling by today’s diesel trains.


    1. I think my equivalent to your Stockport/Edale run would have been the weekend excursions we ‘lads’ made to Minehead from our home village of Bishops Lydeard. A non-corridor train, which was OK for normal travel, but on the late evening return run, well topped up with beer, could present problems. Thank the lord for those drop-down windows, though you were well advised not to lean your head out of them!

      I will never outgrow my love of steam, or cease to lament the locomotive’s demise.


  2. I’ve never ridden by train, but I do hold awe for the locomotives of yore.
    I love the sad lonely sound of a train whistle in the distance. Your journey sounds most….interesting. And, um, memorable. Although maybe not for the reasons you’d like it to be.

    I was driving to work the other day, and had just passed under a rail bridge when the engineer blew his whistle. Scared the daylights out of me! I’d never heard it that close before.

    In reference to arriving on time, there is an (in)famous train wreck that factors into American folklore…the Wreck of the Old ’97. Speed and the need to arrive on time (to deliver the mail no less) were at fault for that disaster. Since I love folklore, I’ve researched that one in depth. There is even a ballad about the tragedy.


    1. I will be honest. I rarely travel by rail now – the car is much my preferred means of transport. It was just precisely because I was going to collect a car that I had to do the outward leg by public transport.
      So much romantic literature has built up around the myths and legends of steam: I can think at once of ‘Strangers on a Train’, of ‘Brief Encounter’, or ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. I must read up on the ‘Old ’97’ – wasn’t a song written about it?


  3. Loved this piece, Frederick. It made me wonder why modern trains no longer have compartments, although I guess it’s mostly the greed of businesses wanting to pack everyone in like sardines for profit. If only British trains were worth the ridiculous amounts they charge! Still, at least we have one extra thing to complain about.


    1. I’m afraid so, Jasmine. My own love-hate relationship with trains goes back as far as I can remember. But all was not rosy in those compartment carriage days. I recall the black looks as I sought entry to some of them – commuters regarded certain compartments as exclusively their own, and woe betide a stranger who attempted to enter their world!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “In the throes of a dose of the trots, just how much trotting can actually be involved?”—Ha, this will be the best line I read today, hands down. But I can’t help wondering what exactly that poor passenger had. My mind is racing with intestinal pathogen possibilities right now.


    1. I guess it must forever remain a mystery, and someone’s indelible memory. It was the disarming frankness of the announcement that impressed me, and offered the opportunity to watch the facial expressions of a carriage-full of English reserve being put to the test.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love traveling by train, always have. There is something romantic about the notion even when traveling in a sleek modern version. We took two overnight trains last spring while in Europe, and while I barely slept a wink, I loved the idea of speeding through central Europe, crossing borders without stopping (yay for the EU), like in some old black and white film from the 1940s.


    1. Ah, now! European trains! Just mention TGV to an Englishman and he becomes visibly depressed. After all, it is our huge net contribution to the EU that largely pays for them. Mention ‘replacement bus service’ in the next sentence and you will make him suicidal.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. OK, I’ll bite. What’s the second refer to? And you know, I am sure, that there are lots of Americans including the Republican nominee to be for President who thinks the US should cut back its contributions to NATO because we don’t get enough in return. It’s a small world. We all need each other.


  6. Oh, Amy, don’t get me started! Suffice it to say, when it comes to war, it pays to lose. After we (UK, USA and Russia) effectively demolished Europe, everyone was eager to give money to build it again (everyone but the Russians, of course). So, new infrastructure, new building, huge inward investment and the banking/broking mechanisms to put these engines in place. Meanwhile, in Britain, we were so broke we couldn’t even clear the majority of our bomb sites for ten or fifteen years. Food rationing continued until the early ‘fifties. We were effectively bankrupted by war loans, because US military help isn’t given for free.

    Thus, ancient infrastructure that has never been updated. In this particular case, new trains running on rails installed in the eighteen-nineties or later, but never after nineteen forty-five. So – breakdowns; so, the train to London that gets as far as Newark then has to stop because the next section of track is under repair. And then, the ‘replacement bus service’ – everyone off the train and onto coaches to cover the missing link.

    I agree NATO is a lame duck, though possibly not for the reasons US would like to ascribe. For UK. it means retaining a ‘defensive capability’ which is no longer relevant to our place in the modern world. We spend large amounts of money maintaining a ‘special relationship’ which really means a front line position for US forces so if ever the two superpowers do decide to rip each other to bits (on balance doubtful) we are likely to take the first hit. And – unsurprisingly – we spend massive amounts of our defensive budget on a nuclear response mechanism we buy from – guess who – the United States.

    I would be the last person to align my thoughts and politics with Donald Trump. However, I do believe – and the evidence would appear to substantiate this belief – that we are entering a time of change. And if it takes a Donald Trump, a Boris Johnson, to provide the catalyst. then so be it.

    Wow! Long answer! I hope I haven’t offended. I am about to blog on the EU, and the ideology that was behind it, and how desperately it has failed to establish the cause for unity versus nationalism. I hope to persuade a few people that the freedoms US citizens so jealously protect apply here, too.


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