Why I still love the un­golden age of the train

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features -

IN THE fa­mous Bri­tish Rail ad­vert of the 1970s Jimmy Sav­ille an­nounced that: “This is the age of the train.” He was wrong, of course. The age of the train ac­tu­ally ended at least 20 years be­fore. The ro­mance of the steam age had been re­placed with charm­less diesel, the worst sand­wiches in the his­tory of sand­wiches and some of the most packed car­riages ever to hold com­muters.

So why did I love trains so much when I was a boy dur­ing this pe­riod? Ob­vi­ously I feel slightly un­com­fort­able about go­ing pub­lic with this con­fes­sion given the so­cial po­si­tion of trainspot­ters — some­where be­tween that of shoplifters and mug­gers. But I was ex­cited about ev­ery­thing to do with trains. I loved the smell of the diesel fumes, the roar of the en­gines, the slam of the doors — I even quite liked the cheese sand­wiches.

My dad would be roped in to take my brother and me to Padding­ton sta­tion where we would spend a fas­ci­nat­ing hour or so watch­ing some of the least glam­orous rolling stock ever pro­duced limp­ing out of the sta­tion on its way to ro­man­tic des­ti­na­tions like Swin­don, Slough and We­ston-su­per-Mare. Our idea of a day out was to take the Ju­bilee line (or the Bak­er­loo line as it then was, for you fel­low anoraks out there) across North-West Lon­don from St John’s Wood to Wem­b­ley Park, and then jump on the Metropoli­tan Line for an adren­a­line-fu­elled ride back to Finch­ley Road. Given my predilec­tion, it’s for­tu­nate I am not a child now. Be­cause the very thought of the sleek trains glid­ing out of a glam­orously re­fur­bished St Pan­cras for Paris is enough to have me dust­ing off my parka. The ex­cite­ment would have been too much. I might even have had to start tak­ing down reg­is­tra­tion num­bers, which as we know is the road — or should that be the branch line — to ruin.

Luck­ily, the trains in the 1970s were so rub­bish that my ob­ses­sion re­mained within rea­son­able bounds. But hav­ing been raised in the least glam­orous pe­riod in Bri­tish rail­way his­tory, it is for th­ese days that I get nos­tal­gic. Old timers pine for the Mal­lard and The Fly­ing Scots­man. For me, the mem­o­ries are of drunk Scots­men rather than fly­ing ones — sur­rounded by empty lager cans on the train to Ed­in­burgh — of Sty­ro­foam cups of scald­ing yet taste­less tea, of the sound of the driver an­nounc­ing de­lays due to late-run­ning en­gi­neer­ing work in the Don­caster area, and of the small fires which oc­ca­sion­ally used to break out in the en­gines of the In­ter­city 125s from Leeds to King’s Cross.

The sight of a shiny, beau­ti­fully re­stored steam en­gine pulling beau­ti­fully up­hol­stered car­riages in the liv­ery of the Great West­ern Rail­way leaves me com­pletely cold. How­ever, give me a diesel elec­tric lo­co­mo­tive pulling dirt-cov­ered Bri­tish Rail car­riage with toi­lets which don’t flush and a buf­fet car which al­ways seems to be closed and my heart aches. Give me a windswept sta­tion with a bored-look­ing man in the ticket of­fice who pulls the shut­ters down on the win­dow just as I ap­pear, and I bathe in warm mem­o­ries.

All of which goes to prove that nos­tal­gia has no qual­ity con­trol. It’s just as easy to get misty-eyed over an Austin Al­le­gro as a vin­tage Bent­ley, or the Bay City Rollers as The Bea­tles. Now, if you’ll ex­cuse me I’m go­ing to stare at the over­flow­ing bin bags out­side my front door to see if I can evoke some sweet mem­o­ries of the 1979 win­ter of dis­con­tent.

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