A low moan ripples along the line of commuters packed at the platform edge as my train pulls in – a sound that the condemned souls from mythology must have uttered as they headed across the Styx into Hades.
The realisation dawns that it’s standing room only yet again aboard the “Train from Hell” – the Reading to London commuter service that is officially the most overcrowded in Britain. Just as on every other day of the week, its wretched passengers will travel to work in conditions that that would be banned for the transit of cattle and sheep.
Yet later that day I was on a Train to Paradise, bowling along in the sunshine along a little branch line in north Devon, almost unchanged since the golden age of the train. Through the windows are glimpses of our green and pleasant land at its most idyllic. The staff are friendly, the trains are clean and the window boxes at the little stone-built stations are brimming with spring flowers. Hard to believe that the Tarka Line from Exeter to Barnstaple is run by the same company, First Great Western, that operates some of the most hellish trains in the land
It’s not surprising, then, that the British both love and loathe their railways in equal measure. This is a fact that I know better than most since I have just returned from a 30,000-mile, two-year long odyssey around the network to uncover the best (and sometime the worst) of travelling by train.
We are fiercely proud of our status as the nation that invented the railway. 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 the travel writer 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.”
Yet complaining about the railways has long been a national pastime, too – rivalled only by the weather and the England football team. How much we love to revel in stories of railway misery. The old gags about “leaves on the line”, the “wrong kind of snow”, the stale railway sandwich never quite go out of fashion.
It seems curious, then, that more of us are opting to take the train than ever before. Astonishingly there are more passenger journeys now than at any peacetime period since the 1920s, when the network was much bigger. And within the next twelve months trains are expected to overtake planes as the preferred means of travel between the UK’s biggest cities. You can guarantee that as the getaway for the Spring Bank Holiday gets underway next week – with petrol prices at a record high – that mainline stations will be thronged with people leaving their cars at home.
Some readers might regard my 30,000-mile perambulation around the railways as an ordeal not unlike being stuck in a lift with the nation’s favourite bogeyman, the rail union leader Bob Crow. But I can vouch that the pleasures of train travel vastly outweigh the privations. An often-inexpensive National Rail ticket unlocks a key to a secret Britain that few of us are ever privileged to see, except through a carriage window.
Among my many journeys, I climbed aboard the slowest train 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 at sunset across the Irish Sea is the most ravishing vistas to be seen anywhere in the land.
I stayed at lonely Rannoch station in the West Highlands where the nearest shop and petrol station 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
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 fiver 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. Even the glamorous Orient Express takes the occasional canter down British rail byways at a fraction of the price of its normal journey to Venice.
But there are some grim experiences to be had, too. Top in my Little Black Book is the obscure fares system, which even the booking staff don’t understand, let alone the rest of us. There are some very cheap fares out there, but you need to have a Masters in Forensics to uncover them. My second biggest gripe is lack of information. I was once on a train that reversed miles back down the line to where it had started without a whisper from the crew. Apparently there was a points failure, but nobody thought the passengers mattered enough to tell them.
And then there is the endless inane blather over the 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 none of this should detract from the infinite delight of rail travel in our hurried and fretful world, particularly aboard a slow train on the lesser-known branch lines and byways. 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. Or, as Bob Dylan put it more pithily: “On the slow train, time does not interfere…”
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. The latest figures for travel to Europe this coming summer suggest many have abandoned the airlines for ever.
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.”
Try experiencing the joy of the slow train for yourself. I reckon 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