I BEGAN to feel spooked when the booking clerk was reluctant to sell me a ticket. “A day return to Goole on the direct line, please?” I ask at Leeds station, the second busiest on the network outside London. “It’s the stopping train,” I explain, trying to be helpful when his gaze goes frosty. There’s a pause, and a ghostly chill pervades the air.
“I wouldn’t go on that route,” he says. What’s wrong? I can feel the hairs bristling on the back of my neck. “There’s only one train a day down the line – it’s the land of the living dead down there.”
There are other chilling omens as I board my train. How come there are so few passengers on this ancient “Pacer” train, while others at adjacent platforms are packed? And why does the guard look suspiciously like Christopher Lee? But the truth is even more sinister, since the 17.16 to Goole has a special status in railway iconography – as one of Britain’s elusive “ghost trains”.
These are not the creaky rides with cobwebs and witches that feature in old-style fairgrounds, but are even spookier still in some ways – ethereal services that wend their eerie way around the rail network to deserted stations often miles from anywhere, almost entirely unknown to the travelling public and running mostly without any passengers – since they operate at deliberately inconvenient times, often giving travellers no hope getting back to where they came from
Though nobody seems to know for sure, there are reckoned to be as many as 50 of these “secret services” currently woven into the timetables around the country – some running as infrequently as once a week with no return journey.
Even though it links two big population centres, the direct line from Leeds to Goole is as spooky as any, with a single train only in one direction in the morning with a solitary service the other way in the afternoon, returning to Leeds if it is in the mood. Not a schedule for anyone wanting to do anything much that is useful – more, perhaps, a skeleton service for the living dead.
Yet, zombie of the tracks it may be, my Goole train and others like it around the country serve a hellishly cunning purpose for the panjandrams in charge of Britain’s rail system, since they help maintain a convenient fiction that a service is still open for business, when the reality is quite the opposite.
But the motive is more practical than supernatural. For the price of an occasional train service with some elderly carriages, or in some cases even a secondhand rail-replacement, bus, the train operators are able to duck the long and costly consultation, accompanied by inevitable howls of public protest, that the law stipulates when a service is to be closed.
This is why the ghost trains are sometimes known as “parliamentary” or “parly” trains – because they supply the bare minimum of service required by the law without having to bother with a long, expensive and politically divisive closure process. The fewer the number of passengers and the more inconvenient the timetable, the better.
But frustrating though it might sometimes be, a journey aboard a ghost train can offer special pleasures – especially when they prowl around lines that are seldom used today. The daily ghost train from London’s Paddington to West Ruislip offers a rare chance to ride on the old Great Western direct line to Birmingham – and the rail buffs pile aboard.
In fact, some of the “parly” trains are often so packed with train spotters that they defeat their purpose – none more so than the most notorious of them all, the “Stalybridge Flyer”. This two-coach diesel railcar is one of the rarest trains in Britain, leaving Stockport at 9.22am on Fridays only, for its short journey around south Manchester.
There is no return service, which may be just as well, since many of the “ghosties” (as the spotters are known) who pack the service each week find themselves waylaid by the legendary real ales and homemade black puddings at Britain’s most famous railway buffet on the platform at Stalybridge.
At least the facilities are better than at Gainsborough Central station in Lincolnshire, where no passenger trains at all stop on weekdays (though there are six on a Saturday). Often described as Britain’s worst station it has been compared to Beirut at the height of war. Poor Newhaven Marine station in the Sussex port is officially open but has no services at all, except for a nightly ghost train that tantalisingly stops but allows no passengers on at all.
More bizarre still is Barlaston in Staffordshire, where the last trains ran in 2004. The bare platforms are closed to the public, yet oddly the service remains in the national timetable and you can still buy a ticket there. Just make sure you don’t arrive by train, since it will rce through without stopping – leaving you to get the rail replacement bus back.
Surreal, too is Polesworth in Warwickshire, where there is only a northbound platform, serving a single train – the 07.23 to Crewe. If you want to get home again, forget it. You can’t travel south since the platform footbridge was demolished years ago and nobody bothered to put it back.
The weeds grow high on the platforms along the Leeds to Goole line. At sad-looking Knottingley, which was once a stop on the main line from York to London, the fine double-span overall roof has been demolished and the station buildings reduced to bus shelters. Spookily one of the letters is falling off the sign on the Railway Hotel.
From here on, as the train rumbles on into remoter countryside, I am the sole passenger. And I start to question whether I am still in the land of the living, when we stop at little Hensall station, a time capsule with an enamel sign advertising Wills Capstan cigarettes, where an ancient railwayman opens the equally ancient crossing gates by hand. It is reassuring to know from the latest statistics from the Office of Rail and Road Regulation, that the station is used by 184 (human) passengers a year.
Darkness is falling as our ghost train sighs to a halt at Goole – mausoleum-like with its peeling paint and empty platforms. The antique platform clock reads 18.26 – and the words of Flanders and Swann from their famous 1963 song Slow Train couldn’t be truer: “No-one departs, no-one arrives, from Selby to Goole, from St Erth to St Ives.”
I muse on the luxury of having an entire train to myself – just the driver, the guard and me. But here’s another thought. Is it just a quirky eccentricity of British life that a secret train should run empty down this line each night, when my fellow commuters have travelled home in conditions worse than cattle? Or is it simply a barmy way to run a railway?
This is taken from ‘The Trains Now Departed: Sixteen Excursions into the Lost Delights of Britain’s Railways’, to be published on June 16 by Arrow Books (Price £6.99)