I have been reading the excellent David Baldacci Christmas Train which involves a journey across the US, the journey is set in modern time indeed the traveller uses the train as the result of a falling out with airport authorities over their over intrusive checks. Our traveller is going coast to coast on sleeper trains and there is something so wonderfully evocative in the names of the trains, the railroad companies and the whole travelling experience. I have worked on the old British Rail sleeper cars and the experience described in the book is something completely and wonderfully different, a world of meeting people whilst travelling over the course of a couple of days and of lounge bars and twin level coaches.
This subject comes up quite often in books and certainly it’s a feature of Baldacci’s, every time I read about the subject I am moved to think that I shall have to complete such a journey for no other reason than to experience the magnificence of the countryside from these rolling caravans. I am, of course, well aware that on my train there will be no film writers or superstars and that I will be sandwiched between an oversized family and a snoring old lady, condemned to spend the time with my head under the pillow cursing the name Baldacci. In fact with my luck Spiderman or Tigger will be there for the duration, like some LSD fuelled commuting nightmare.
The wondrous sounding American experience may be a step ahead of the more mundane UK railways but we still have iconic buildings and journeys that will forever evoke emotions embedded in childhood. My entire UK dwelling has resulted in London Liverpool Street as a terminus station and I remember well when this was effectively to stations split by platforms 9 and 10, the longer Intercity platforms. As a child on family outings we would cross the footbridge between the low numbered platforms with their North London destinations and the high numbered platforms departing to the bucket and spades destinations of Southend on Sea and Clacton on Sea. Walking over the footbridge gave an opportunity to stop and watch the locomotives running around to pull the long Intercity trains to Norwich and, of course, to the Hook of Holland via Harwich. To a young boy there was something marvellous about watching the theatre of locomotives being uncoupled from the rear and fresh ones brought onto the front from the small shunt siding hidden in the dark between the platforms, a process lost long ago to an efficiency drive.
The station has long since been rebuilt an much of the rolling stock has been replaced although the grand old dames of the Intercity service are still plying the line, looking tired and outdated they seem to hark back to a golden age and still remain the stock of choice wherever possible. When I worked for Eurostar I commuted from Harwich and managed to time my commute to the ‘boat trains’, Intercity services timed to align with sailing times for the ferries; these trains provided a wonderfully eclectic mix of travelling companions and rich diversity of language. Even then you could see in the old buffet cars glimpses of the rich past of these services, long galleys equipped and designed for serving full cooked meals reduced now to pre-packaged snacks and cups of tea. There was an advantage for me in the provision of a buffet car, especially when returning from a night shift, in that the steward would kindly provide tea when I boarded and when I awoke both of which were made from his personal provision and therefore cost nothing, on quiet occasions we would sometimes sneak an elicit bacon roll in the galley as well.
For all the history and romance of transportation though nothing will ever come close to working one Christmas at Doncaster railway works, I was met there by my senior traction Engineer who was so happy to have fallen upon the ‘perfect Christmas’ a Casey Jones* turkey burger and a Christmas Eve nightshift in a railway works. They say that it takes all sorts and in this industry you sure do meet them.
*British Rail’s ill-fated challenge to McDonalds and Burger King