The golden age of rail has turned to plastic

Given the choice between 'Madonna of the Pinks' and the 'Flying Scotsman', I know which I'd save
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The Independent Online

Unlike mercy, the quality of melancholy is easily weighed. At a rough guess, I'd say my present melancholic mood weighs in at around 25 kilos and 150 quid, this being the amount of luggage I plan to haul on to the Fort William sleeper tonight and the price of a standard second-class return ticket to that famous rain-lashed destination.

Unlike mercy, the quality of melancholy is easily weighed. At a rough guess, I'd say my present melancholic mood weighs in at around 25 kilos and 150 quid, this being the amount of luggage I plan to haul on to the Fort William sleeper tonight and the price of a standard second-class return ticket to that famous rain-lashed destination.

I love travelling to the West Highlands by train. Correction, I used to love travelling to the West Highlands by train, but times have changed and, today of all days, the extent of that change has been brought cruelly home to me. I have just heard that engine number 4472, the famous Flying Scotsman, is up for grabs and will probably be sold to an American if the National Railway Museum in York cannot come up with the cash to save it for the nation. What a tragedy.

Given the choice between The Madonna of the Pinks and the Flying Scotsman I know which I'd rather save. And then again if after months of soul searching, breast-beating and publicity we manage to scrape together £22m to hang on to the Raphael, surely we must be able to come up with the £800,000 or whatever it is to keep this legendary industrial icon on our patch. It's the most famous train in the world, for heaven's sake, the first to go faster than 100mph or travel non-stop between London and Edinburgh.

It was trains like the Flying Scotsman that made every small boy born before 1960 dream of becoming an engine driver. You can understand why. Nothing sums up potent pulsating macho virility (apart possibly from Brian Aldridge in The Archers) more powerfully than one of those great gleaming, roaring old-fashioned steam engines. It wasn't Trevor Howard that Celia Johnstone fell in love with in Brief Encounter. It was the train careering through the station behind him. Silly woman, she got her wires crossed, no wonder it ended in tears.

And nothing separates real men from quiche-eating wimps quicker than a glimpse of a muscle-bound, sweat-stained, soot-begrimed stoker shovelling coal feverishly into the furnace to keep the pistons working at full tilt as the train races onwards ever onwards...

Sorry, I'm getting carried away but trains, proper trains always have that effect on me. In the tourist season they run a steam train between Fort William and Mallaig, the iron road to the Isles. One year they had a female stoker in the cab. She didn't look like a stoker. In a cardigan and skirt on a bus, you might have taken her for a librarian and you would have been right. In real life, that's exactly what she was but she had always dreamed, she told me, of being an engine driver, and this temporary seasonal job was the nearest she could get to it.

Logically there must be a great gleaming pulsating mainframe computer out there, the inspiration of every small boy born since 1960 to want to become a computer programmer. The Flying Apple Mac? It doesn't have the same ring. If the Flying Scotsman does cross the pond and become a tourist attraction in Florida, we will have lost not simply a train but tangible proof that once upon a time the British not only built the best trains but ran the best railway on earth.

When it was built in 1923, and had I been around to travel to the West Highlands, I would have had my dinner in a walnut-panelled dining car with waiters in white gloves and a sommelier to help me choose the wine. A uniformed porter would have put my luggage in the guard's van and the breakfast tray brought to my berth in the morning would have included on its linen cloth a china teapot and silver sugar tongs.

Now, if I'm lucky and they haven't run out, I might get a microwaved chicken korma for supper in the buffet car this evening or an all-day breakfast bun. The sleeping car attendant will ask if I want tea or coffee in the morning, and it will arrive in a plastic cup in a paper bag. If my teeth aren't chattering when he brings it, it will mean I've been able to filch an extra blanket from the top bunk, but the train is full tonight so I shall be sharing with a stranger. Please God she doesn't snore like the last one or have shoes the length of narrowboats for me to trip over on my way to the loo in

the dark.

I know the golden age of train travel has passed, so has the silver, the bronze and the iron. So where does that leave us now,

I wonder? Neo-plastic, probably. And the name for my train tonight?

The Tartan Takeaway will do.

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