Parallel Lines By Ian Marchant

On the railway of dreams, there are never leaves on the line

Why are we so down on railway enthusiasts? Sure, there are the anoraks and the Ian Allan spotter's books and the thermos flasks and the Marmite sandwiches. But in America, it's positively cool to be a train buff. Neil Young owns his own locomotive, Whoopi Goldberg travels everywhere in her own private railcar and there are all those songs inspired by Woody Guthrie riding the rails. Here, all we have to approximate to a cool enthusiast is Pete Waterman - and he gave the world Kylie Minogue.

There's a delicious moment in this book when the author finds himself in a Borders bookshop. "I'd been eyeing up the magazine for some time. There was something about the model on the cover that turned me on. My palms were sweaty and my heart was racing. I knew what the pretty girl on the till would think of me - she would think I was a stroker. I slipped the magazine into the bag and rushed out of the shop. I had just bought my first copy of Railway Modeller."

Ian Marchant believes that the reason why enthusiasts are driven into the ghetto is that the British have lost touch with the romance and passion that led them to invent the railway in the first place. There are two kinds of railways, he believes - the "real" railway, where there are leaves on the line, the wrong kind of snow, and you make your way to the buffet for "a plastic cup of hot water with an enfeebled tea bag clinging like a brown limpet and a plastic container of 'Tastes Like Real Milk'." Then there is the other railway, the railway of our dreams - beautiful, romantic, brimful of nostalgic promise. "This is the railway the train spotters like."

So, with a copy of the 1862 Railway Traveller's Handbook in his pocket, he embarks on what he terms an "Aborigine's walkabout" around Britain's railways to "bring to life the dormant fascination that slumbers within every big boy's breast". The result is Michael Palin meets Nick Hornby meets What the Victorians Did for Us, as this 40-something former punk musician, hippy, comedian and bookseller splices his autobiography (he spent much of his childhood on trains, shuttling between his divorced parents) with acts of homage to the founding fathers of the railway.

Marchant "bashes" his way around the country - over the tracks built by Brunel and Stephenson, to Crewe and the National Railway Museum in York, over the Settle and Carlisle and the Liverpool and Manchester. (For those who don't know the lingo: "bashers" aim to cover as many lines as possible and are at the top of the rail buffs' hierarchy, followed by "spotters" and "rivet counters" - the lowest of the low. Only bus spotters are inferior to rivet counters.)

The result is almost always bathetic, and the heroic is frequently undermined by the horrors of corporate Britain and the privatised railway. Instead of rubbing up against a mysterious femme fatale, as he hopes, on the overnight sleeper to Inverness, Marchant is stuck in a shared compartment as "small as a mobile phone" and faced with the prospect of "having another man's todger swinging in front of my nose". Carnforth station, location for Brief Encounter, the greatest British weepie ever, is "a national scandal" - its buildings unmanned, unused and falling into disrepair. Inevitably, he gets stuck on a broken down Virgin train.

It is the politicians, "who are scared of car drivers and don't give a stuff about the Kyoto accord" who are at fault, says Marchant. "If they thought there were votes in it, they'd sell their grandmothers and close down every inch of line they could get their sticky fingers on." Stephen Byers, he says, "didn't even take responsibility for his own skidmarks."

But he links the demise of the railway to a more general social decline. The end of steam in 1968 (coincidentally the year his parents split up), for instance, is correlated with the rise of divorce. "The Golden Age evokes images of happy families setting off together on summer holidays to Paignton or Porthcawl. Paddington was alive with excited and happy children, well-behaved characters from the pages of Enid Blyton. Mum and Dad, arm in arm, looked forward to spending time together, dancing in the ballroom, walking on the prom, watching the kids play in the sand.

"But as steam gave way to diesel, the kids became fractious and wanted to go to Torremolinos or Disneyland. The family catch the Gatwick Express in silence. Mum and Dad are barely speaking, looking forward to getting wherever they are going so Mum can tap off with a Spanish waiter and Dad can get pissed and move on the attractive holiday rep."

The way back to the Golden Age, Marchant says, is to create a "non-Euclidian" railway (Euclid's law about parallel lines never meeting, being the point of the book's title.) "Instead of harping on about the Good Old Days, we need to imagine a better way to allow people freedom of movement." But precisely how this is to be achieved is not explained in this wacky and amiable book.

More enlightening is being let into the Secrets Only Trainspotters Know. Such as the real reason why you can't use the toilet when the train is standing in a station. Or the vast strategic reserve of steam engines allegedly concealed inside Brunel's Box tunnel in Wiltshire. Or the hidden effects of a large station Ritazza: "As thin as Iain Duncan Smith's smile, it is worth putting up with the disgusting taste to get the unrivalled caffeine buzz. But beware, ordinary diuretic properties are multiplied tenfold: don't get caught short on a suburban train with vandalised lavatories after taking a couple of shots in a moment of madness."

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