The train now meandering . . .: Brian Jenkins boards the Sussex Scot for the nine-hour cross-country route to Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture
SUPPOSE you had to travel from Brighton to Edinburgh: which way would you go?

Would you spend nine or ten hours in the car, battling round the M25 and slogging up the A1 or M1? Would you struggle to Heathrow to catch the Shuttle? Or would you take the train to London Victoria, the tube to King's Cross, and then the fast electric service northwards?

If you went that way, you could leave Brighton just after your croissants, and be in Auld Reekie in time for high tea.

But there is another way by train, sitting in the same comfortable seat all the way, without having to change. You could catch the Sussex Scot, which skirts London and follows a roundabout route through England and Southern Scotland, taking a leisurely nine hours to reach its destination.

The Sussex Scot takes so long that you could catch a later train from Brighton and still beat it to Edinburgh. And that's why, in the harsher world of privatisation, its days are rumoured to be numbered. Which is, I thought, a good reason to try it out.

I was in no rush, and I rather fancied taking a slow, relaxing train ride. That's why one wet winter morning I was aboard the Sussex Scot, looking out at the mist- shrouded South Downs. The Sussex Scot is not a flashy new high-speed train: the diesel loco and the coaches were all of Sixties vintage. So it wasn't done out in tasteful grey plastic; it had comfy seats and wood-veneer panelling. And as for being high speed, we managed to be 20 minutes late at our first stop, Haywards Heath.

One of the reasons for the existence of the Sussex Scot is its second stop, Gatwick Airport, providing a direct service to the Midlands, the North-West and Scotland. A few dozen people boarded. Most of them, obviously back from their holidays, were dressed more fittingly for the Sunshine State than for wintry wet Sussex. There were also a few who had just arrived from the US to start their vacations.

The train seemed to be popular with old people, mainly women, who probably wanted to avoid crossing London by tube and did not mind that it was so slow. But in the midst of all the sensible grey pleated skirts, cardigans and fawn zip-up jackets sat an American woman of the same age. She wore Nike training shoes, black jogging pants, fluorescent pink jacket, fluorescent yellow sweatshirt, and a fluorescent yellow sweatband round her head.

After Gatwick, we followed the commuter trains up through south London to Clapham Junction, where we left the main Brighton line. Near me there were three women and a man, all in their seventies, and as we crossed the Thames, they stopped sipping their coffee and munching their Hobnobs, and looked out at the grey river. One of them said: 'I wonder where we are.' Outside we were passing a rather large sign stating 'Chelsea Harbour'. Another woman replied 'It's Chelsea Harbour, I think.'

This stretch of line passes through west London, to Willesden, where we ran right up to the main Euston-Glasgow line. But instead of taking the line northwards to Scotland, we veered off and ended up going west towards Wales.

We picked up speed along Brunel's main line, and at Reading we were just five minutes late. A throng of passengers boarded, mainly families and elderly people. The train was getting quite full, and I watched how people deterred strangers from sitting next to them. They claimed neighbouring empty seats by putting papers, handbags or even suitcases on to them. But what was really odd was that hardly anyone would go and ask for the bags to be moved so that they could sit down.

At Didcot we turned off the main line. The tops of the power station's mammoth cooling towers were hidden by the low clouds. We headed north, stopping at Oxford to lose some passengers and pick up some more. They were mainly young backpackers heading for Leamington Spa to get the train to Stratford-upon-Avon.

As we headed through the Oxfordshire countryside towards the Midlands, the rain stopped and the clouds started to lift. The train was so full now that people were squatting on the floor by the doors; there were even a few students sitting in the otherwise empty luggage van (it made sense - after all, there was luggage on the seats).

The catering on the Sussex Scot was provided at a small serving hatch. The steward was going to be standing behind that hatch all the way to Edinburgh, serving tea and coffee, sandwiches, microwaved meals and alcoholic drinks. I asked him how he managed to stay upright on a moving train for nine hours. He laughed. 'You get used to it. Mind you, after my first trip, I got home and was wobbling around the house for hours. But I'm used to it now, although I still get a lot of bruises.'

It took just over four hours to reach Birmingham New Street, and there was another four hours still to go.

We were held up even more here because the station first-aider had to come aboard to attend to an American woman who had scalded her leg with hot coffee. He gave her leg his close consideration. It was not a very serious scald, and the woman wanted to press on to Edinburgh, so the first-aider arranged for her to be met at the other end by an ambulance and taken to hospital.

After Birmingham we travelled through the industrial wastelands to Wolverhampton. We'd spent the first four hours of the trip wandering around the well-kept Home Counties. Now we saw a change. There were acres of derelict land, and old factories now used as distribution centres, DIY stores or go-kart centres. But we were soon into the Staffordshire countryside, just as the skies cleared and the winter sun came out.

Most passengers join south of Birmingham, so everyone was getting settled in. A torpor fell over the train. A child was irritating everyone with his noisy hand-held computer game. Around him people were indulging in more traditional pastimes like cards and bumper crossword books.

At Crewe station I saw an entire family of train spotters: Mum, Dad, son and daughter, all at the end of the platform. Their dog was there too. As we left Crewe I noticed that part of the historic railway works was now a supermarket.

The day, which had started so badly on the south coast, had turned into a beautiful winter afternoon. As we cleared Preston, the scenery become more spectacular. We ran alongside the foothills of the Pennines before we rounded Morecambe Bay and climbed up to the infamous Shap summit. To the west lay the snowcapped fells of the Lake District, to the east the Pennines.

We were about 30 minutes behind schedule as we crossed the border in the dark. The conductor realised that there were half a dozen passengers aboard who would miss their connection with the Aberdeen train at Edinburgh Waverley. He reckoned that if we made an unscheduled stop at Haymarket they would catch it.

Unfortunately his intercom to the driver wasn't working. So he had to use the public phone on the train to call the signal box, who then brought the train to a halt at a signal. The driver climbed down from his cab to answer the trackside phone, and was then told to make the additional stop.

It was dark as we trundled down to Edinburgh, so we missed the views across to Fife. We made Haymarket in time for the Aberdeen train. Then we wound our way around the foot of Castle Rock and arrived at Waverley station, still half an hour late. If I had taken the quicker route, I could have been enjoying dinner by now.

The Sussex Scot might have been slower than other ways of getting to Edinburgh, but it had been an enjoyable journey. We had crossed 18 counties, covered 498 miles and passed through a variety of landscapes. It might not cover as much territory as the Trans-Siberian, but the Sussex Scot must be the nearest we have to a train that runs from one end of the country to the other.

(Photographs omitted)