The hunt for Britain's ghost trains

The 11.36 from Paddington to Gerrards Cross is designed to be as inconvenient for passengers as possible. Why? Michael Williams reports

Could there be anything less ghostly than the scene at London's Paddington station on this bright December morning? The sun is sparkling through the glass of the newly restored canopy of Brunel's magnificent terminus as commuters and shoppers scurry across the concourse, cheered by the prospect of Christmas.

Yet, waiting for me on Platform 14, in one of the darkest, dankest, greasiest and most inaccessible corners of the station, is one of the spookiest trains in Britain: the 11.36 "ghost train" to Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire.

The Gerrards Cross ghost train is one of several ethereal services that wend their eerie way around Britain's rail network, almost unknown to the public and running mostly empty, since they operate at deliberately inconvenient times – often offering their passengers no prospect of getting home again.

Yet these zombie services have a very real existence in the minds of the bureaucrats who control our rail system, since they help to maintain a fiction that a railway line is still open, when it has effectively been abandoned.

For the price of an occasional train service with a clapped-out diesel, or in some cases even a bus, the train operators are able to duck the long and costly consultation, accompanied by inevitable howls of public protest, that the law stipulates when a railway line is to be closed. For these reasons the ghost trains are sometimes known as "parliamentary trains".

In this Alice-in-Wonderland world, it is especially desirable that the staff refuse to sell you a ticket. "You're at the wrong station, mate," the man in the booking office tells me when I try to buy a one-way ticket. "You need to take a Tube to Marylebone. That's where the Gerrards Cross trains go from." When I argue, he raises his eyebrows wearily and takes a long swig from a mug of tea. It's only when I refuse to budge, and after some consultation of dusty ring-binders, that a ticket is finally produced. I appear to be the only passenger on board, outnumbered by the driver and the guard – and there's a definite chill in the carriage. Is there a fault in the heating system, or are diabolical powers at work?

One thing I know for certain, having pored over the small print of the timetable, is that there is no train back. I also know that the real diabolical forces emanate not from the supernatural, but more prosaically from mandarins at the Department for Transport who keep the ghost trains permanently suspended in purgatory for their own dastardly purposes.

"You are our only customer today", announces the conductor, Mohammed, inspecting my ticket as though I were being awarded some kind of honour. "Most days we have no passengers at all. But we run this train every day so that Network Rail won't shut down the line. If we stop running this train, then that's it. Kaput."

Certainly, this once mighty main line to Birmingham and Birkenhead, pride of the Great Western Railway until it was downgraded during the Beeching cuts of the 1960s, seems on its last legs. The train crunches along a rusted single track past the back end of the industrial estates off the Great West Road. Here are the bulldozed remains of the Old Oak Common engine sheds that housed the Kings and Castles, among the greatest steam locomotives built in Britain's industrial heyday.

There's another sign of post-industrial nostalgia as we pass behind the old art deco Hoover factory, now a Tesco supermarket. Disused sidings are shrouded in dying buddleia as we pass an old-fashioned wooden signal box and even more antiquated semaphore signals sited incongruously near a gigantic modern waste transfer station.

When I get off at Gerrards Cross, I find I am no longer alone. The ethereal figure at the end of the deserted platform, pointing a camera at the front of the train, is not the Ghost of Railways Past but Dave, an off-duty train driver, who is one of the "ghosties" – rail enthusiasts who travel the land "copping" [spotting] the "parliamentary" trains.

"Actually," he tells me, "they use this route for crew-training in case Marylebone is shut and trains are diverted." He explains that the "parly" trains originated in the Railway Act of 1844, which brought in a maximum third-class fare of a penny a mile and higher safety standards after some stonemasons were catapulted to their deaths from an overturned third-class carriage. The train companies came up with a ruse to duck their responsibilities while sticking to the letter of the law. They would run one decent train a day, often at the worst times and with the surliest staff to put off all but the most determined of passengers. Today's "parly" trains operate on a similar principle, but they are often so packed with "ghosties" like Dave that they defeat their purpose – none more so than the Stalybridge Flyer. This two-coach diesel railcar is one of the rarest trains in Britain, leaving Stockport at 9.22am, on Fridays only, for the short journey around south Manchester. There is no return service, which may be just as well, since many of the "ghosties" who pack the services each week find themselves waylaid at Stalybridge by the legendary real ales and homemade black puddings at Britain's most famous railway buffet. An even rarer service runs between Frodsham and Runcorn, which has only one train a week – on Saturdays in summer.

For many "ghosties", the North of England offers ghost train paradise – or hell if you are one of the few passengers dependent on them. There are only four services a day between Helsby and Ellesmere Port in Cheshire. And at Styal, between Crewe and Manchester, just three services a day stop. (This appears to be true lunacy, since local campaigners have proved that a stop would not add to overall train times.)

Poor Teesside Airport station, on the Darlington to Middlesbrough line, has an average of one passenger a week, making even the most obscure Ryanair Baltic destination appear like Heathrow.

But the most surreal and inaccessible ghost stations of all lie, paradoxically, on Britain's busiest railway, the West Coast Main Line between Euston and Glasgow. Each day the weed-covered platforms at Polesworth in Warwickshire and Norton Bridge near Stafford can be glimpsed tantalisingly by thousands of passengers.

Polesworth, which had six weekday services as recently as the 1980s, now has one – the 07.26 to Crewe. Passengers cannot travel southbound, because the footbridge to the up platform was removed six years ago and no one bothered to put it back. Norton Bridge is in even worse shape. Although it has a nameboard and appears in the National Rail Timetable, it has not been served since 2004, when the footbridge was taken down. Passengers seeking to access what must be one of the most godforsaken stations in the land have to get there on a bus that trundles round the back roads of north Staffordshire. (Though it offers special spooky charms of its own, since the platform lamps are said to light up from time to time spontaneously and inexplicably.)

"The whole situation is completely crazy," says Britain's foremost timetable expert, Barry Doe, of Rail magazine. So why don't the authorities put these sad railway wraiths out of their misery? The problem, Doe says, is that in the old days British Railways were happy to put forward a closure proposal. But since privatisation, the railways have been controlled by the Department for Transport, which is a bit too close to government for anyone to dare raising the politically sensitive subject of axing trains. "We're stuck in a limbo world," says Doe.

When I arrive back at Paddington, after a return journey via Wembley and a hike along the Marylebone Road, the early evening commuters are already besieging the homebound services on what are, according to the latest statistics, the most overcrowded trains in Britain. Here is a subject worth pondering. Is it a quant and charming eccentricity that an empty ghost train leaves the station each day while passengers on others are transported like cattle? Or does it simply confirm that the way we run our railways is totally barmy?

 

Michael Williams' book, "On the Slow Train Again: More Great British Railway Journeys" is published in a new, updated paperback edition by Arrow Books on 12 February, price £6.19.

Suggested Topics
Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Life and Style
fashion
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior DBA (SQL Server, T-SQL, SSIS, SSAS) London - Finance

£30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior DBA (SQ...

Business Anaylst

£60000 - £75000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: Business Anal...

Senior Project Manager

£60000 - £90000 per annum + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Global leading Energy Tra...

Associate CXL Consultant

£40000 - £60000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: CXL, Triple Po...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment