Long Train Running

Until relatively recently trains to me were bits of metal that simply made life easier when they functioned, and unbearable when they didn’t. A bit like a washing machine, except my Hotpoint usually runs on time.

Trains are not exotic or even punctual, although if anyone wants to pay for me to enjoy the Orient Express for a week I’m open to changing my mind. But here’s the thing. My new computerised washer really is exotic and punctual, and it costs a lot less than a train. If the cycle says it will take 35 minutes then that’s exactly how long it runs. It doesn’t apologise for staff not turning up, or for malfunctioning signals, or people trespassing on the space in front of it. And although I haven’t tested it yet, I have a sneaky suspicion my washing machine would probably make better coffee too.

And yet I used to love railways.

I spent endless, long days in the loft of our childhood home playing with my train set, imagining long journeys with little cows and sheep standing in the cattle trucks at the back, noisily bound to the carriages that held tiny commuters squeezed in the front. It never occurred to me that these might be people on the way to work, angry at the lateness of the train, the stifling conditions inside, and the authentic farm smell wafting from the back. In my railway world everyone was happy.

But then I grew up. I became a commuter myself, and realised that I actually had to pay for a ticket which would cost a ransom without guaranteeing a seat or, indeed, that no one smelly would sit beside me eating a curry pastie while shouting on their ‘phone. Trains rapidly lost their charm amidst a host of late arrivals, sweaty passengers and snacks that cost so much I’d have to starve for a week afterwards. And I didn’t have the saving grace of popping downstairs for dinner, served by my mum while asking me to wash my hands which were caked in that dust that only old lofts have.

Childhood fantasy and grown up real life experience rarely mirror each other. I mean when I listen to Thomas The Tank Engine videos narrated by Ringo Starr, I don’t think “Wow Mr Conductor sounds like a Beatle” as I once did, but instead I ask myself why he sounds so bored. The Fat Controller also became ridiculous for me when I actually worked with an obese Programme Controller at a radio station years ago. And I have my doubts about Percy too.

However, I think I have recently regained my young enthusiasm for locomotives all over again, and it’s all thanks to a man named Peter Middleton. Peter is an ex BBC camera operator and director who has an absolute passion for railways, their gauges, signalling boxes, upline token transfers and all the rest. He’s not a train spotter, though he does have a nice green anorak, but you can tell he is never more at home than on the footplate of a steam train or having a cup of tea in a radio signalling centre.

A few years back Peter formed a company that exists to show something that I had either forgotten or had never thought about before. He sells videos of train journeys shot from the driver’s point of view, the stunning scenery filmed with cameras fixed beside the driver, at the track side, and in helicopters above. Whenever there is a Scottish journey released on DVD, Peter kindly asks me to do the narration, and I sit spellbound by how beautiful a train looks scything through the countryside using tunnels hewn years ago from rock solid hillsides by Victorian engineers and their workers.

Like a worker ant or a drone, trains fed the industrial revolution that spawned them, transporting coal and other materials from one end of the country to another and ensuring communication and supply routes that we could only dream about. Isolated communities joined the world, businesses sprang up, transport became quicker and cheaper.

Whenever I look at those DVDs I am filled with wonder at the sites we never get to see, the access to places that a car just doesn’t deliver, whether it’s rolling along a lochside or climbing a steep hill to wonder at a valley that even a diehard hiker would never attempt to see. Maybe it is a bridge crossing, looking down on the ships and boats below, wondering about their stories, where they’re going. Trains deliver it all.

It took over 100 years for people to wake up to the idea that railways didn’t have to just transport coal. They could also, gasp, move people around too. And it was only in 1807 that the world’s first ever fare paying service for commuters was launched in Swansea, Wales. I bet they had leaves on the line back then too.

So, although I still have to commute on trains now and again, I’ve changed my perspective a bit. I no longer look at the fat bloke picking crumbs from his chins next to me but I divert my attention instead to the fields and cows. I turn away from the tinny MP3 sound blaring from the ears of the goth across the table from me, and I look at the rivers running past. The constant clicking of the lad on his keyboard while he accidentally kicks me under the table goes unnoticed as I take in the hills, lakes, the isolated farms and crofts.

In short I’ve gone back in time to a young lad who made up adventures in his loft with nothing more than a couple of carriages and a broken signal box that he’d thrown at his annoying brother. I’m full of hope again. But if the rail networks ever think of stealing my idea and transporting cows at the back, I may change my mind.

I’m still getting over the curry pastie.