The romance of the rails

Back in the 80 s I used to travel by train a lot on business. At that time it was frowned upon to take your own car and, at our firm, the company car was unheard of other than for a few right at the top.

As I got to travel so much I even had my own book of rail warrants so that I could just write one out when I needed to. And so I would head off, sometimes on a day trip, other times for up to a week, and let the rhythm of the rails waft me from place to place as I earned my crust.

When I was a small boy most of our travel involved the local ‘bus service, and so my early experience of the romance of travel was the bus station in maybe Maidenhead or Reading. There I might see a long distance coach service, and the sight of people going somewhere excited the curiosity of my youthful mind. Railway stations and airport terminals still have the same fascination.

Train travel came a little later into my world after yet another move of house. We lived beside the Tattenham Corner branch line, where I could see the Royal Train take the Queen and her Mum to see The Derby at Epsom, but our station was a one mile walk away. From there we would catch a Southern green electric train up to Croydon to shop, or now and again to the terminus at Victoria on an outing to London.

At Victoria I could see one of the most romantic of trains; the Golden Arrow (Flèche d’Or) with its wonderful chocolate and cream Pullman cars taking people to or from the Continent. But my first solo train journeys were less glamorous; daily commuting into the City via Fenchurch and Liverpool Streets for example.

In the 1980s my job started to take me around the UK by train, and I rode the East and West coast main lines and got deep into Wales amongst other places. I met many fascinating people both in those places and en-route. Then I became entitled to first class where the peace and quiet could be double edged sword: On the one hand it was nicer to work on the train but, when you didn’t need to work there were less people to strike up a conversation with.

There was one great joy to the posh end though, and that was the dining car. A colleague and I used to book, at our own expense, a pair of seats on the up Red Dragon and spend the hour between Swindon and Paddington having breakfast. What a civilised start to the day!

Over the years I have also travelled by train in Denmark, Germany, France and the USA, each of which has brought new pleasures and, at times, a reality check. Once, travelling from Hamburg to Hannover our train slowed, presumably for a section of track maintenance. Some disused and overgrown sidings slid by with what appeared to be an old military camp away beyond the trees. Then we passed a small sign that said Celle. It took the mental Rolodex a few seconds to click round and Belsen came up. Travel does broaden the mind; there I was sat in first class luxury with my cup of coffee observing the site of such horrors that were perpetrated 50 years since, and trying to reconcile that with the German people of today that I worked with, respected and liked.

After a time I gained a company car and that put an end to travelling by train to a large degree. It was frowned on to incur the expense when you had company wheels at your disposal. But by then the trains were being refurbished to, in my mind, a lower standard than they had been built to with old comforts being replaced by small, hard seats and less leg room. And corporate vandalism didn’t stop there; the Network Southeast livery has to be the greatest travesty ever inflicted on a railway in their history.

No, I’m very glad that I was able to enjoy rail travel at a time when it was a pleasure to travel by train.

 

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