It was one of the most delicious yet poignant meals I have ever enjoyed aboard a railway train. The Smoked Haddock Arnold Bennett Crepe was delicious, and the rib-eye steak grilled to a tee. Solicitous stewards served rhubarb and ginger pavlova as the eastern counties flashed past the window in the setting sun
But when our train from King’s Cross pulled into Newcastle at the end of last week, an era passed into history. This was the last-ever restaurant car to run on the East Coast main line to Scotland, where railway dining was invented back in 1879. This week [beginning May 23] the East Coast company replaced its dining cars with airline-style meals and another bit of the romance of travel passed out of our lives.
In fact, it’s been a bad few days for railway romantics like me. Not only are we losing our dining cars, but a report from an “efficiency expert” recruited by the government from the airline industry has come to some gloomy conclusions about the future for rail travellers. Sir Roy McNulty, the former chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, suggests that to balance the books of the railway industry some fares might have to rise by up to 30 per cent – on top of what are already the dearest fares in Europe.
Yet it remains true that Britain still possesses one of the most glorious rail systems in the world. I know this better than most, since I have recently returned from a 30,000-mile, two-year long odyssey around the network, after being commissioned to write two books identifying the best two dozen train journeys in the land. An often-inexpensive ticket on an ordinary train (and there still are many cheap fares to be had) can unlock the key to a secret Britain that few of us are ever privileged to see – except through a carriage window.
I am penning these words, bowling along in the sunshine along a little branch line in north Devon, almost unchanged since the days of the Beeching axe nearly half a century ago. Through the windows are glimpses of our green and pleasant land in all her springtime finery. The staff are friendly, the trains are clean and the window boxes at the little stone-built stations are brimming with spring flowers. The 39-mile line Tarka Line from Exeter to Barnstaple is typical of dozens of such lines around Britain that escaped Beeching and have gone on to thrive today.
Indeed, there can be fewer greater pleasures in our hurried and fretful world than meandering aboard a slow train on the lesser-known branch lines and byways of Britain’s rail network. Such pleasurable travel certainly cannot be experienced behind the wheel of a car on the motorways, which are carefully designed to prevent drivers being distracted by the scenery.
At its best, there can be nothing more relaxed than settling back on the cushions for a scenic rail journey. “Slow train travel is almost the only restful experience that is left to us,” wrote the essayist A.P.Herbert. It even has an appeal for rock music superstars. Bob Dylan wrote: “On the slow train, time does not interfere…”
In fact, an inborn fondness for the railways seems to run through the veins of many of us. I’m certainly proud of our status as the nation that invented the railway, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Thomas the Tank Engine, The Titfield Thunderbolt and The Railway Children are part of our national iconography. And as the historian G.M. Trevelyan once said: “The railways were England’s gift to the world”.
No one sums it up better than Paul Theroux, who wrote: “There is an English dream of a warm summer evening on a branch line train. Just that sentence can make an English person over 40 fall silent with the memory of what has become a golden fantasy of an idealised England: the comfortable dusty coaches rolling through the low woods, the sun gilding the green leaves and striking through the carriage windows; the breeze tickling the hot flowers in the fields, birdsong and the thump of a powerful locomotive; the pleasant creak of the wood panelling on the coach; the mingled smells of fresh grass and coal smoke…”
Of course there are frustrations. The fares system is often incomprehensible. And then there is the endless inane blather over the train PA about health and safety trivia, such as “not opening the doors till the train comes to a complete stop”. (Is there any other kind?)
But despite this, there are more passenger journeys now than at any peacetime period since the 1920s, when the network was much bigger. Despite the recession, passenger numbers have risen by 7 per cent in the last year alone. There was a total of 1.34 billion passenger journeys by rail in the year 2010-11. And within the next twelve months trains are expected to overtake planes as the preferred means of travel between the UK’s biggest cities. Who with any sense would not swap the car for the train this Spring Bank Holiday Monday [28 May]? Over the past year, petrol prices have risen at twice the rate of rail fares – and by 11 per cent in the past three months alone.
And what pleasures there are to be discovered aboard the train. Among the many delights of my journeys round the rail system were the slowest service in the land, which takes more than four hours to trundle along the Cumbrian coast from Preston to Carlisle – in which time you could have got to London and back. Yet the view from the carriage window across the Irish Sea at sunset is one of the most ravishing vistas to be seen anywhere in the world.
I stayed at lonely Rannoch station in the West Highlands where the nearest shop and garage are 40 miles distant, yet arrived direct from Euston aboard a grand sleeping car train called the “Deerstalker Express”. On the way I enjoyed breathtaking views of loch and glen, plus a delicious meal of “neeps and tatties” washed down with finest Skye malt whisky in the lounge car.
You don’t need to have deep pockets, or even travel very far to find some of the world’s best train journeys here at home. For the price of a single-zone ticket costing less than £5 on London’s Docklands Light Railway, you get a front seat to a historical panorama unrivalled in the world, from the Tower of London, past the breathtaking skyscrapers of Canary Wharf to the classical Greenwich of Christopher Wren.
It’s even possible to take a relatively thrifty journey aboard the glamorous Orient Express [see MW picture to go with this article], which takes a regular canter down British rail byways at a fraction of the price of its normal journey to Venice. A journey such as the one I took along Brunel’s historic line to Bath and Bristol, with silver service dining that would delight the fastidious Poirot, is the perfect antidote for those of us pining for the loss of the main line restaurant cars
As I was midway on my journeys around the network last year, the case for train travel received, literally, a gift from the sky when an ash cloud from an erupting volcano in Iceland grounded flights across Europe. Although many travellers were furious, there were others who returned home thrilled at the rediscovery of the pleasure of leisurely travel on scenic branch lines and byways. According to the Association of Train Operating Companies many have abandoned the airlines for ever – and with another ash cloud threatening earlier this week [May 23], there was reportedly a rush of bookings for the Eurostar.
Like all the best love affairs, the attachment of the British to the railways – despite the gripes and disappointments – defies normal explanation. “The curious but intense pleasure that is given to many by railway trains is both an art and a mystery,” wrote the historian Roger Lloyd. “It is an art because the pleasure to be had is exactly proportionate to the enthusiasm one puts into it. It is a mystery because it is impossible to explain to others.”
Like me, try experiencing the joy of the slow train for yourself. I’m certain you won’t be disappointed.
‘On the Slow Train Again: Twelve more great British train journeys’ has just been published by Preface, price £14.99. The updated paperback version of the companion volume ‘On the Slow Train’ is newly reissued by Arrow, price £7.99