It may not be quite a match for Clapham Junction but Denton Station has a rush hour too. It happens once a week – at exactly 10.24am every Friday – when, without any stress, harassed commuter pre-walking or muffled announcements of delays or cancellations, the little diesel engine from Stockport chugs its way into view.
According to official figures published this week by the Office of Rail Regulation, Denton is one of Britain’s least used interchanges, the alighting point for a “ghost service” to nearby Stalybridge where just 30 passengers a year make the 12-minute hop around the Pennine fringes of east Manchester.
Yesterday at the appointed hour – dead on time as usual – as The Independent hailed the train winding its way under the M67 motorway and into the cutting – there were five passengers waiting eagerly to clamber aboard.
“One week a bloke actually got off. He disappeared up those steps. We don’t know who he was and we’ve never seen him again,” laughs David Ferguson, 55, who has been taking the train each week for the past four years and then jogging the 10 miles back to his home.
“I’m into running but I love my trains. We have the Scarborough flyer and the Cumbria Flyer through here each week in summer and we get a lot of special trains put on,” Mr Ferguson said. “It’s not very useful as a service. We know that – everybody knows that – but it’s a Parliamentary line and they have to keep it open. There is a lovely atmosphere on the train. We even have a folk band that comes on,” he adds.
It would indeed take a vote by MPs to shut Denton Station, which is why, miraculously perhaps, it survived Dr Beeching’s cull of rural and suburban branch routes in the 1960s. In those days workers at the Oldham Battery Company could still recall being treated to a special Blackpool Express by their employers to take them on holiday from Denton every August shutdown.
More recent concerns over the future of the line led to the creation of a local pressure group – Friends of Denton Station – which has set about restoring the request stop to something like its former glory by building flower boxes and buying benches for passengers to rest up whilst awaiting the weekly service.
It has since teamed up with Friends of Reddish South Station further down the line to once again earn a stay of execution. They now have big plans to expand, with talk of linking the route into the national network and even a park and ride, explains Friends chairman Alan Jones, 77, who also makes the weekly journey into Stalybridge.
“We want a regular service into Manchester Victoria. This used to be a busy commuter station. You could get pretty much to anywhere from here,” he says.
Anthony Cornick, 63, who uses the service to do his weekly shop in Ashton (returning by bus) also disputes the official estimates. “Thirty passengers a year – I personally make 52 trips. You can see for yourself when you get on. It is full. They are not ghosts – they are real people. We have people from Japan or Germany, from all over the world. I’m out here when it’s snowing, whatever the weather. It would be very unfortunate if it closed down,” he says.
Extraordinarily, for what is officially a “ghost train” without any passengers, the service is, if not quite packed, then at least busy. I count around 30 fellow travellers, all but one of whom is a man, middle-aged or over, in a jolly mood and with an interest in trains.
Steve Whittaker, 63, a retired diesel engineer from Stockport, has been coming this way for years. “I went on my honeymoon to York on this train in 1973,” he says. “If you come regularly you get to see the same people,” he explains.
Mr Whittaker and his friend, retired teacher Martin Stuart, 54, are bound for the buffet bar at Stalybridge station which serves a mean full English breakfast and keeps 10 real ales on tap. “It’s friendly, it’s a nice trip and it’s a bit of railway time and we get a great breakfast. This is the world of retirement. It’s really very pleasant,” says Mr Stuart.
Denton to Stalybridge might not rank as one of the world’s great railway journeys but it is not without its highlights. There are the points at Audenshaw Reservoir when we join the single track to Guide Bridge and where we have the option to change for Manchester Piccadilly or stay aboard and watch the Huddersfield Canal disappear under the local Asda.
At journey’s end, as the engine chuffs off to Newton Heath depot, retired engineer Ian Barker, 67, has a theory. “The official figures don’t count us older people who use their free passes. Few people buy tickets so they don’t realise how popular it is,” he says.