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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn