Simon Calder: A whistle-stop tour of northern England

The man who pays his way

Haltwhistle in Northumberland is a small town within discus-hurling distance of Hadrian's Wall. It is also astride the South Tyne, the A69 and the Carlisle to Newcastle railway line. One thing has always puzzled me: why no-one has had the wit to name the rail station Haltwhistle Halt?

I have mused about this perhaps more than I should. That's because, over the years, Haltwhistle station has acquired the status of Atlantis or Shangri-La for me, and I daresay a few other railway travellers. I have bought a number of tickets to Haltwhistle, yet have never actually taken a train to, from or through the town. The reason: in some circumstances a London-based rail traveller may wish to go north on the East Coast line and return by the West Coast route, or vice-versa.

For a cheap, flexible ticket that allows you to go to Durham or Newcastle and come back from Carlisle or Lancaster, you need an off-peak return to Haltwhistle. Since both East and West Coast lines are permitted routes, you can take an "Up" train to the Tees or Tyne, and a "Down" departure from the Eden or Lune. You could even travel on the wonderful Settle to Carlisle line, if it happens to be running (which it wasn't on Wednesday). So far, no ticket inspector has asked for proof that I have halted at Haltwhistle.

On Wednesday night my life changed. I arrived at Haltwhistle station, and departed from it a few seconds later after a whistle-stop. Ironically, this was an occasion when I didn't have a ticket to or from Haltwhistle.

I did have a ticket of sorts: an Advance one-way which entitled me to travel at teatime that day from Carlisle to London with Virgin Trains. "Nothing going south from here," was the concise summary when I turned up to catch it. The line to Preston had been closed in advance of the violent storm that was wreaking havoc with ferry schedules across the Irish Sea.

The railway network in northern England has built-in resilience, in a way that Cornwall and most of Devon do not; with its single link from the rest of the nation severed, the South-west is presently cut off on three sides by the sea and on the fourth by Network Rail. But in the North, if the West Coast is closed, you simply switch shores to the East Coast. So I headed for Tyneside, where services were running normally.

A ScotRail train – well, more of a garden shed on wheels – strays south of the border to connect Carlisle with Newcastle (presumably if Scotland votes for independence, that kind of caper will end). So I hopped on the stopper from Carlisle, hopped off at Haltwhistle Halt to prove it exists, and crossed the Tyne to Newcastle station at the moment that the express to London glided in. It halted and whistled as I boarded, and we set off for Darlington. Which was when everything started to go wrong.

Move over, Darlington

My, transportation progress is impressive. Almost 200 years ago, the world's first railway took passengers in draughty open wagons from Darlington station to Stockton. In the 21st century, passengers can sit in draughty open wagons at Darlington station going absolutely nowhere. An overhead power problem halted everything on the East Coast main line. With no electricity to power train doors, they were left open to the elements. At least this facilitated excursions to the loos on the platform; the on-board WCs by now resembled a battleground for germ warfare.

East Coast Trains' online punctuality indicator seemed to have been infected, because it started spouting nonsense such as "This service is running early by 1425 minutes and is expected to depart at 00:12 from platform 4." In contrast, the on-board team, who should all have clocked off hours earlier, did what they could to assuage passengers. "It's a bad night when they're giving out hot drinks in second class," one lady in first class was heard to say, after free tea and coffee for all was announced.

Four hours on, a plan emerged. A diesel High Speed Train, which has the railway equivalent of an outboard motor and does not need external power, turned up from Aberdeen. We were told to move over at Darlington to share it with a couple of hundred disgruntled passengers who had been stuck behind our train. Off to York, with a halt (but no whistle) at Northallerton.

More evidence of progress: in a mere 76 years since Mallard established the steam train speed record of 126mph on the East Coast main line, 21st-century expresses on the same track can can go almost as fast. Except on breezy days.

We passengers were shunted from the High Speed Train over the footbridge to yet more rolling stock, this time designated the 1.40am from York to London. At a relaxed 2am, it set off south at a sedate 80mph – and finally reached the capital five hours late, at 4.30am.

Thoughts from aboard

The guard kept us well informed even when he had no news to tell us, which was oddly reassuring. But both East Coast and Virgin must curtail their marketing efforts when the network falls apart. East Coast doles out a brochure promising "We do everything we can to make you feel at home" just as most of us had given up any hope of reaching home that night. And Virgin should suppress mass emails when thousands of passengers are not where they want to be as a result of its cancellations. Halfway through the journey, Virgin Trains –which had stopped all departures to the capital – sent an email inviting me to "Win a First Class trip to London".

Next time I find myself halting at Haltwhistle, I shall conclude "This'll do," and find a hotel on one side or other of Hadrian's Wall. I wonder: is there a Haltwhistle Thistle?

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