Why I still love the ungolden age of the train
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.