The train that passed in the night

Michael Williams rode the very last British Rail service, ending the nationalised era
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The Independent Online
Somewhere in the Lanarkshire countryside in the small hours of yesterday morning, one of Britain's great post-war institutions passed away. It was 49- and-a-half. There were few mourners.

The last rites had been administered just before midnight on the concourse of Edinburgh Waverley station, when the British Rail chairman, John Welsby, signed papers handing over ScotRail to National Express, formally completing the process of rail privatisation begun so acrimoniously in 1992, and squeaked in, as John Major had prayed for, in time for the election.

As a lone piper played "Scotland the Brave" and the 11.30pm local train made the final departure for Glasgow, British Railways prepared to join British Coal, British Steel, British Shipbuilders and British Gas in the Valhalla of unwanted state industries. It can be certain its remains will lie undisturbed.

As midnight passed, the only trains running were a handful of sleeper trains, including the very last to depart - the 23.55 Caledonian Sleepers Edinburgh to Euston. BR staff were not quite agreed on when it would change its identity from publicly to privately-owned - whether on the stroke of midnight or on arrival in Euston. "Just call it the Cinderella train," said the station supervisor. It was certain, however, as Class 87 locomotive Robert the Bruce and its eight coaches clattered through the night, that an era had ended. All those icons of modern travel that had become indelibly associated with BR and a million jokes were borne away for good. The wrong kind of snow; leaves on the line; the curling sandwich; the Beeching axe; the stale pork pie and the MaxPax coffee had all reached the end of the line.

But there was little nostalgia among the 60 standard and 35 first-class passengers aboard the 23.55, among whom there was not an anorak, flask or Ian Allan trainspotter's book to be seen. Most were Edinburgh business people heading for work in London or tourists returning from the Easter weekend, and few had any idea this was the last train until they saw a slightly flustered grey-suited figure in the form of the BR chairman giving it the green flag for departure.

The idea of privatisation did not seem a bother for most. Patricia Jordan, travelling back to Florida with her son and daughter-in-law after a family wedding, said: "We like it that way. Privatise anything in America and it becomes more efficient, so that must be good news for you." Soldiers Robert Cowan, of the Black Watch, and David Clark, of the Royal Artillery, were on their way to a tour of duty with the peace-keeping force in Sarajevo.

Even Francesca Leavey and her friend Isabelle Asencio, who work for French Railways' reservations at Waterloo and had first-hand experience of South West Trains, were not in a mood to criticise. "Sure, there are problems, but we've just had four days travelling round Scotland by train and it was absolutely wonderful." The one note of regret came from Peter Simpson, the duty manager at Waverley and 16 years with the railway, who said he would miss the sense of community: "Wherever you went up and down the country, you were part of the railway family; now with privatisation all that is gone."

True to another great BR tradition, though, the sleeper was 22 minutes late arriving at Euston. It was because of a diversion through Birmingham, said the driver, Russell Abram, who wasn't aware it was the final train when he took it over at Preston. "When I booked on, it was just another job."

But there was a greater ignominy still. National Express, with five of the 25 franchises, extending from London to the Highlands, from Woolwich to Wick, had become the biggest single buyer of BR. What was once the world's greatest railway system had woken up to become an adjunct to a bus company.