On the face of it, this has been a depressing week for us rail fans. A chap with the somehow depressing name of McNulty published a fairly boring and depressing report into the condition of the industry. McNulty was formerly the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority which is depressing when you think how railways have been contaminated by airline culture, what with "airline seating" (code for cramped seating) and depressingly pompous announcements including "Please take a moment to check the safety features" and this, on a First Great Western service: "We are now commencing our approach to Bristol Temple Meads."
McNulty expressed his broad approval of the privatised structure of the railways, which is depressing to those of us who think the fragmentation involved is the primary reason our trains are so depressingly expensive to operate and to travel upon compared to those of our competitors.
To address this problem, McNulty recommends fiddling with an over-complicated ticketing regime (like the seats, modelled on those of the airlines) in a way that is likely to see off-peak fares rise. He also suggests staff cuts, which will probably lead to strikes and to an increase in un-manned stations surveyed only by the unblinking eye of the CCTV camera. All of which is really quite lowering.
Oh, and the operator East Coast has announced "great changes" to their services. From today, First Class passengers will receive "complimentary food and drink", which is another way of saying that an "at-seat" service (where you are given your food from a trolley, much like a passenger on an aeroplane or a patient in a hospital), will replace the serving of food from silver salvers to travellers at dining tables. Killjoy accountants have triumphed again, and restaurant cars will cease on the route that made them famous.
A good time, perhaps, to retreat into a best-selling volume called Mile By Mile on Britain's Railways, by a certain long dead S N Pike (a superb trainspotter's name, that). This is a reprinting of several pamphlets by Pike describing what could be seen from the windows of Britain's main lines immediately after the Second World War. Among the excitements offered on the cover are "gradients, speed tests and mileages", "viaducts, bridges and embankments", and even "streams, bridges and roads".
The success of the book is testament to our taste for railway romance, which has resulted in over 100 preserved steam lines, and which sits so oddly with our inability to run a modern-day railway. It is tempting to agree with Ian Marchant, who in his highly enjoyable book of 2003, Parallel Lines, concluded that there are two railways in Britain: that of imagination and that of reality. The latter, he averred, is "largely shit".
But in browsing through Pike, I wasn't as depressed as I thought I might be. For a start, the main lines he describes are all still there (as are the mileposts with which he is obsessed) and they're still my favourite way of getting about the country. I admit that I occasionally lapse, sulkily resorting to my Skoda after being invited to pay over a hundred quid for a ticket to Yorkshire. But if I try to call to mind the relishable car journeys of my life, the screen remains blank. Drives are all essentially the same, whereas I recall every moment of, say, my trips on sleeper services.
Euston to Inverness, for example. When you wake at Inverness, it's as if life has started anew. The strange accents all around, the pure air, the gulls wheeling in from the Moray Firth. All have been magically summoned for the price of your fare, and you have become ... well, a hero in a John Buchan novel. But I have enjoyed myself equally on the sleeper to Penzance, which begins at Paddington, my favourite of the London termini and a permanently festive place that puts butterflies in my stomach, especially on Friday evening when the resident brass band plays. E M Forster clinched the matter when he wrote that "all of the West Country is latent in Paddington". But actually, on reflection, it's probably better to go to Cornwall from there in the daytime, because you want to see the alarming adjacency of the Atlantic at Dawlish, the hills of Dartmoor to the right beyond Totnes, the imprisoning – or protective – girders of the Royal Albert Bridge over the Tamar.
And when I say that Paddington is my favourite station it's only fair to say that I also love King's Cross, St Pancras and Marylebone. The interesting thing about Marylebone is its smallness. As John Betjeman said, it looks like a public library. (You can tell the railway that originally served it was small and obscure by its name: Great Central). I often think I'd like to live in Marylebone station. About a quarter of it is taken up by a pub, for a start. There's also a M&S food shop. When bored with these I could walk underneath the porte cochère connecting the station with the five-star London Landmark hotel, where I could sit in the stunning atrium and order a glass of wine.
Whereas the appeal of Marylebone lies in its domestic scale, the appeal of St Pancras – sorry, St Pancras International – is in its sheer size, the giant sky-blue train shed that was designed to expand and contract according to the temperature like, as Simon Bradley writes in his book on the station, "the shallow breathing of a mighty creature in its sleep".
But then again, King's Cross is my station, my personal portal from London to the land of my birth (York). When I first arrived in the capital, and lived alone in a frightening, Pinteresque bedsit in Balham, I used to hang out near King's Cross just for the consolation of being near a place containing trains that could take me back home. I would drink in a certain pub on York Way that had a black-and-white TV until about 1995. It was not overly hygienic. The clientele looked shifty, like the men in The Ladykillers, a film that took its lovely, crepuscular atmosphere from the moodiest London station. But "the Cross" is being beautified – have you seen the elegant new footbridge? – and I approve of that too.
It could be argued that in concentrating on the main lines in this way I am ducking the issue, in that most of the grief on our railways is experienced by the commuters on their overcrowded and expensive journeys into and out of the London and Manchester especially. But I would risk the suggestion that there is a romantic aspect even to some commuter trips. Take the Metropolitan Line, built, as the Metropolitan Railway, for workers who did not commute (the term was not used in 1863) but "oscillated" between, say, rural and inexpensive Notting Hill and the City. Ride this line as it goes around the corner from King's Cross to Farringdon and look up at the arcaded walls of the cuttings. It's like the basement of Gormenghast Castle.
The North London Line (or London Overground to those who insist on living in the 21st century) has been prettily spruced up too, but retains its eccentric meandering air of "going around the back way"; and Blackfriars (a commuter station) is being rebuilt so that it spans the Thames, which will make it wonderfully bracing.
I do not commute, but I do frequently ride on the rural branch lines, of which, in spite of Dr Beeching, there are still plenty on the network. You name me a part of the country, and I'll tell you of a little line where it is hard to believe that driver and guard are not somehow part of the entertainment industry, such is the pleasure their work affords. Take the Settle-to-Carlisle line, which rises over moorland up to a thousand feet above sea level. You're frequently in clouds, and your ears pop, as on an aeroplane. The Ribblehead viaduct is 105 feet high and has 24 arches. It is said that the wind up there can stop a train. The line is ghostly, with black, tombstone-like wooden spars by the rails to keep off snow. These also appear by the line running from Inverness in the south (I use the term loosely) and Thurso and Wick in the far north, just the 20 or so stops, each lonelier than the last.
Seaside stations are often set back from the town, giving them an impressive stand-offish air, as at Broadstairs, Eastbourne, Scarborough or Brighton. But if you do go to the coast this summer, make sure to go by train; I further recommend that people like me stop moaning about our railways for a while, and embark upon a season of enjoying them.
Andrew Martin's latest novel is 'The Somme Stations' (Faber)Reuse content