Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Capital 'A' anorak

Thank you Ian Marchant for the wonderful book, Parallel Lines. Or it could be subtitled 'Everything you wanted to know about trainspotting but were afraid to ask.' Marchant takes us on a fabulous journey, which I haven't quite finished yet, to explain the cult of trainspotting. He makes a sensible starting point arguing that really there are two railways. The first is the one that is universally derided as being crap. The railway of rubbish sandwiches, tardy trains, rude staff and incomprehensible timetables. The other, is the railway of trainspotters and enthusiasts like myself, the railway of romance and nostalgia.

To prove that this 'second' railway really does exist, Marchant decides to become a line 'basher,' a peculiar breed of enthusiast whose aim is to travel every railway line in Britain and thus completely colour all those dull black lines in their rail atlas. While he may often find the first railway, there are hints of the second all around - you just have to be attuned to it, that's all! He does try hard and along the way regales the reader with some fabulous anecdotes including the opening story of being chatted up by a couple of working girls while admiring the fabulous gothic facade of St Pancras station. There are also copious opportunities for lewd, drunken and drug-filled diversions along the way as Marchant takes himself on a idiosyncratic tour of the railway of Britain including a fantastically circuitous route from London to Lancaster via Leeds, the Settle & Carlisle and Barrow-in-Furness!

This is trainspotting for the uninitiated. However what Marchant never does is make fun of the trainspotters themselves, albeit for references to their sandwiches wrapped in grease-proof paper. He does dispel some of the myths about railways and its attendant enthusiasts though. Contrary to popular belief, they are not all spotted, bespectacled youths of the male gender. As Marchant discovers, trains have a fascination for women too and the preservation movement welcomes and indeed does employ volunteers from all walks of life. Sadly perhaps, he never quite gets to grips with the appeal of noting engine numbers, although he confesses a weakness for the later, when boarding the Caledonian Sleeper from Euston.

Like me, Marchant's interest in the railways goes beyond the locomotives and the rails they run on. His equally fascinated by the social history of the railways, the way they have shaped our society and the magnificent legacy they have left us, particularly in terms of architectural and engineering feats. He holds back none of his bile for Beeching and the swingeing axe the man from ICI wielded in the 1960s, cutting off a third of the rail network for good. Neither does Marchant have time for politicians who continue to interfere in an excessive way with the railways.

The railways are endlessly fascinating and as Marchant observes 'All human life passes through the station. What's not to be fascinated by?' I could not agree more. Railways are more than just the trains, the buildings and the permanent way and all its attendant infrastructure, it is about the people, simultaneously its single greatest asset and weakness.

Is there truly then a romantic and nostalgic railway? I think there is and I feel that Marchant discovers it in this book. The railways may appear frustratingly complicated to the casual traveler with the complex ticketing arrangements and difficult to understand timetables, or just as a functional means of travel from A to B, but to me they are so much more than that.

On Saturday, for example, I went to Carlisle. Two main reasons - first to see the city and its cathedral (I have a weakness for cathedrals) and secondly (and more pertinently) to say that I've been to Carlisle Citadel station. While the cathedral was something of a disappointment, the station was not. The main frontage was designed by Sir William Tite, who had two years earlier designed the Bank of England, and it is one of the most impressive entrances to a station in the country. Inside, the train shed is magnificent. Although it may now only hum to the sound of multiple units, it is not difficult to imagine how impressive it would have been in the age of steam, with the express locos of the LMS hauling their heavy trains under the fine roof. There is some link to the past, with a display celebrating 150 years of Citadel station and the 'City of Carlisle' nameplate adorning the wall near the entrance. This is a place that is filled with nostalgia and romance for an age long past.

On the way back, as the train passed through Crewe, the spiritual home of the train enthusiast, there is more evidence of that nostalgia. At the Railway Age, there is the last remaining set of the Advanced Passenger Train, that fine attempt at a state of the art tilting train that ended in failure for British Rail in the early 1980s. This was the future that was to usher in what was called 'The Age of the Train.' South of Crewe is line upon line of withdrawn coaches and locos; most will be heading for the cutters torch, others will see new life, perhaps in preservation or even less likely in another country. It says a lot about our railways and our society when perfectly usable stock is left to rot while the trains that replaced them hurry their passengers to and from their destinations. I have to agree there isn't much romance or nostalgia to be had traveling on a Pendolino. Will I be looking back in 30-40 years when the Pendolinos are being withdrawn from service and have the same feelings of nostalgia and romance that I have now about the railways. Somehow I doubt it.

No comments: