Take the man at Llandudno Junction with over 30 years' experience of standing on platforms flagging and whistling the trains away. "Fred", as I had better call him since BR is rather sensitive about their staff talking to journalists, only needs the word privatisation to set off on a long journey which he had taken many years before: "The railway used to be a family. It was a way of life. You had one hand for yourself, one for your job and one for your mate." He draws away theatrically: "Now it's all for yourself - or rather, your particular company."
Fred explains how "in the old days" if a train broke down, and there was another locomotive at hand, it would be called upon for rescue work immediately. Now, it depends what company the locomotive belongs to. "A couple of weeks ago, we had a broken down train and there was a mail train locomotive nearby, but instead they sent one all the way from Crewe because it would have cost too much to hire the rescue one. Meanwhile, there were trains stacked up behind it."
I am heading for Crewe because it is the heart of the rail network in the North. At Llandudno Junction, I pick up the Northwest Express to Crewe for a real train journey: old coaches, with well-padded seats, tables for every seat and wooden panelling throughout, all hauled by a locomotive, not one of those sprinter trains that, to many rail enthusiasts, resemble buses.
There are few such trains left on British Rail since the advent of "multiple units" which have their traction underneath and are, of course, much cheaper to operate. With the green hills and their dumb sheep running away from the trains on one side, and the beaches and marshes on the other, it is a journey on which you could do with two window seats.
At Crewe, as expected, there is again no shortage of complaints about what one worker, referring to the breakup of the railways, jokingly calls the "disintegrated" railway. Here unfolds the tale of a railway where separate and competing companies charge one another for their services, so multiplying bureaucracy and inefficiency.
A young driver for one of the freight companies explains how his job has already changed for the worse, and how lots of money is being wasted. "Often, when I didn't have much to do, they would use me to bus passengers around who had missed connections and the like," he says. "But now I don't do that because I just work for the freight company, and when the other companies need help with passengers, they use taxis instead."
He goes on to explain how there were two locomotive depots at Crewe. "It used to be that if a diesel loco happened to be in the electric depot, it would stay there over night and it didn't matter. But now, they will shunt it out, even if it is needed there the next day because it would get charged for staying overnight." He sighs: "There's so much money being wasted, but we've seen none of it."
There are no station masters any more, in charge of movements from their platforms as a matter of their discretion. They have been replaced by retail managers, and the station staff have lost any responsibility for train operations. The result is a low-intensity civil war with passengers because station staff no longer have the power to hold a train for a few minutes to wait for a connection. It is a complaint relayed to me time and again by various railway workers. One chap, wearing the red jacket uniform of the now defunct InterCity, complains how the focus of the service had changed. "There is all this talk about customers, as we're supposed to call them, and they even send us on seminars to show how we're supposed to treat them. But in the end they don't care."
He tells the story of how there was a delay to an InterCity train and a lot of people who wanted to get to Stoke had to crowd on to a little train run by one of the Regional Railways companies. But the train was packed with RR staff using it to go home and instead of ordering them off, Regional Railways said that the InterCity passengers should use an InterCity train. "There were a dozen passengers left on the platform while all the rail staff stayed on the train."
In a way, the railway workers are suffering what many are going through: the fear of losing a job, the uncertain impact of new technology, the unsettling ethos of "downsizing", the transformation of every relationship into a contract to be accounted for financially, the loss of trade union rights and power. A job in the railways used to be for life and now there is no certainty that it will be there next year.
Yet the irony of all this disquiet with the railways is that in my three days of travelling only one minor mishap inconveniences me. Back on the rails, an InterCity train takes me to Lancaster. The coach is empty and in darkness because the lights have failed. The conductor explains: "The batteries are flat and have not been recharged, for some reason. It's been like that for a while but we have to take this coach back up to Glasgow for repairs." He says that there used to be more depots to get rolling stock repaired but now these were being cut back.
The train from Lancaster to Barrow, again a journey where the countryside goes past too quickly, is quite full but Barrow station, from where I head along the Cumbrian coast, is a sad place, a reflection of the town itself. There is, though, an old-fashioned greasy spoon cafe that serves old-fashioned eggs on toast, much better than the standardised Travellers' Fare. Excellent though it is, the food does not quite make the visit worthwhile.
The stretch of line from Barrow to Carlisle, however, is one of those railway lines that makes rail travel worth it. The sea is menacing, sweeping on to the rocks and pebble beaches, and often, according to the guard, on to the rail lines where it causes the trains to skid.
Here again, the train is relatively well-used, particularly once we reach Whitehaven. At Sellafield, there is a trainload of workers from the nuclear processing plant going home to Barrow. There are countless little stations, each with their old station house boarded up and set back from the platform, crumbling and decaying. A fellow traveller tells me that these houses cannot be sold because there is a rule that they cannot be lived in unless they are at least 12 feet away from the railway line.
At Whitehaven, a woman in her thirties sits herself opposite me and pulls out a can of Tennent's Strong Lager. It is clearly not her first and she starts dozing, her head gradually sinking to the table until her nose rests on it. But even that doesn't wake her and she stays like that for a couple of minutes until the train lurches. She takes another gulp and starts collapsing again, disgorging her lager over me. I pick the can up and she falls into a deeper slumber. If the train serves no other function than keeping such people off our roads, it is more than paying for itself.
The guard is chattier than most of his fellows, many of whom have become sullen in the face of the uncertainties in the new world of the railways. He relates again the stories about the missed connections: "They just seem to delight in letting the trains go. The late train from London comes into Carlisle at nine, and there are trains to Whitehaven and Newcastle to connect with it. But they often don't wait if the London train's late." He explains that now the InterCity trains have guards with mobile phones, they could easily work out whether there were passengers needing connections. "But they often don't bother," he says.
Of course, the railway workers are a conservative bunch. And there is much in their working practices that could be criticised. It can take, for example, up to a dozen crews of two people each to move an empty train the 10 or so miles from Bounds Green in north London to Clapham Junction in the south because none of the drivers has the requisite "route knowledge" to cover the whole journey.
They may occasionally be stroppy and inflexible, but they have an intense pride in the railway and believe in what they are doing. And that world is being challenged. They know that the railways are not being privatised with any notion of improving service, but because Railtrack, the rolling stock leasing companies and sundry other parts will be sold off for money that can be used for tax cuts. And ultimately, they have an important message. What they sense is being lost in the drive towards commercialisation and privatisation is any notion of public service and it is hard to disagree with them.
Tomorrow, in the final leg of his journey, the writer travels from Carlisle to York to meet the train-makers who are going out of business because of rail privatisation.Reuse content