So much for railing against privatisation

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The Independent Online
When I was a young boy, growing up in the borders of North Wales and Cheshire, the village railway station was called Gresford, and there I used to spend many hours taking engine numbers and watching trains shuffle back and forth, taking coal from Gresford Colliery and passengers to Wrexham. Occasionally, bigger fry would pass through. Trains going as far as Wolverhampton. Trains marked "Pines Express" and going to somewhere called Bournemouth, though how they got re-routed on to our line I could never quite see. Bluebells came every spring in the woods and lady's smock grew round the River Alyn.

Happy days. When I left home and moved to London, my local railway station was Paddington, which had a better choice of trains but wasn't nearly so glamorous and had no burbling brook. After 25 years, I moved out of London, and now my local station is very much like Gresford used to be. Gresford has been closed, I believe, but Freshford, near Bradford-on-Avon, is still very much open. Freshford is that rare thing among stations - a request stop (my friends seldom believe me when I tell them this), and you have to stick out your hand to make a train stop, or, if you are on the train and want to get off, alert the guard in good time.

Not every train stops at Freshford, of course. On Sundays, we quite often get re-routed Inter-City trains purring through. A friend of mine once put out his hand for one of these trains, thinking it was the local stopper. The driver thought so too, for a moment, and screeched to a halt just beyond the platform, whereupon the guard put his head out of the window and shouted "We don't stop here!" before the train moved on.

Freshford has the same sort of valley setting that Gresford had. They have recently put in a new pedestrian bridge, which argues that they are planning to keep the station open. But the most extraordinary thing I have seen in the station recently - last week, in fact - was a train whose destination was stated on the front as "Lime Street".

This was ridiculous. Lime Street is in Liverpool. Most trains expire when they get to Bristol and never go further than Cardiff. I got on the train (I was going to Newport) and sat down, only to hear the announcement: "This is the Portsmouth service to Liverpool and Cardiff. The train will divide at Newport, where one half will go on to Cardiff and Cwmbran, while the other half will go to Liverpool Lime Street, calling at ..."

There followed a litany of glorious border names such as Hereford, Ludlow, Church Stretton and Shrewsbury, followed by Crewe, Runcorn and Liverpool. I couldn't believe my ears. A train from Freshford, on the edge of Somerset, going direct to Liverpool - and going the scenic way, as well!

There was a man sitting opposite me, toying with a laptop. Across from him sat a blonde woman reading The Hungry Tide by Valerie Wood (the title of the book is not significant - I just put it in as colourful detail and to show how uselessly observant I am).

"How far are you going?" he asked her.

"Liverpool," she said, suspiciously.

"Great!" he said. "The reason I asked is that I'm one of the managers of the company, and we've just introduced this service as one of a new series of through-trains we are going to have. I mean, we shall never get people out of their cars and back on trains if we don't give them the through-services they need, right?"

It was uncannily like watching a TV commercial. Bright, shiny railway man talking about new trains to blonde reading romantic novel, which she abandons, saying: "New through-services? Hey, tell me more, handsome!"

She didn't say it, this being real life, so I took up the conversation instead, and he talked with such shining faith in the expansion of railway services that I have started to wonder since if privatisation may not have its good side.

After all, I suppose Gresford would never have been there in the first place if it hadn't been for private enterprise.