With the summer in Australia fading, the travel ads are reaching a crescendo: come visit Theme Park Europe, thrill to the rides, admire the art, the culture, taste the wine, the food, the people. Forget the devalued dollar.
Pretty soon the tour companies will be sending out their invoices for final payments and before you know it, squads of expectant superannuants will be squeezing into the back rows, jetting off on the trip of a lifetime – three weeks by boat cruising the Med or the Rhine and the Danube, winding in and out of medieval towns in “luxury coaches” or, as has been documented on these pages, whizzing around the great trainset that is Switzerland.
By now my small (but perfectly formed) readership will have figured out that I have a thing about trains, which means in this context that I routinely scan the ads for anything as attractive as the Swiss rail tour that my long-suffering spouse and I took last year. (I can hardly believe it’s more than six months ago – because I’m still enjoying it.)
So far, not much. But I do detect a rise in the number of “great rail journeys” being offered. Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia and, believe it or not, Iran have joined the roster of rail tours being sold to Australians this year. Next stops Iraq and Afghanistan. Syria may be a bit longer.
These are only what the marketers judge will sell to profitable numbers of rail-interested people in Australia (which by definition must therefore be on the rise). Masses of other rail tours can be found on the WWW and in the British and American train magazines, although they come without the advantage of having included in the tariff group flights to and from the start/finish points.
Y’know, though, I can’t help feeling these trips, despite their attractions, are not great rail journeys. Like the Venice Simplon Orient-Express, as I said way back at the start of The Traveller, they are like rides in an amusement park. They’re fun, they’re enjoyable. What’s not to like about a beautifully restored wagon-lit rolling through drop-dead scenery, attended in Edwardian splendour by your own butler? But no one travels on these trains to get from A to B. The tourists do it for the experience of something largely no longer available on scheduled services – a long, slow train ride. The destination is mostly irrelevant.
A real great train journey carries with it a sense of achievement. You have to travel some long distance and you choose to do it by train. You make the bookings (these days on the internet and print your tickets at home), battle your fellow passengers on the station and on the train, deal with your bags and theirs, eat and drink in only the most basic of ways – and many hours, or even days, later you drag yourself and your belongings on to the platform at your destination where the ticket barrier assumes the character of the finishing line in a particularly arduous marathon. The reward is the enjoyment of the experience, whether from the train itself, your fellow passengers, the view out the window or from unexpected happenings, especially the good ones. Whatever difficulties come your way, you love it.
I’ve yet to take the Trans Siberian but I have been across Australia a few times (east-west and north-south along the east coast), once across the United States and once Chiang Mai to Singapore – all on scheduled services. These are what I call genuine great train journeys; some of them were far from easy. I must concede, though, that all of them do take enormous numbers of tourists these days. In Australia, let’s face it, the Indian Pacific (Sydney-Perth) and the Ghan (Adelaide-Darwin) are tourist trains. They are scheduled and still carry a few people actually going somewhere for a purpose, but the overwhelming majority are just along for the ride.
In France and England last year, my wife and I made a number of long distance rail journeys. One of them was definitely a tourist ride – billed that way and accepted as such. The others? Were they, or could they be, great rail journeys by my criteria or were they just simply going from here to there because we had to?
Take Eurostar, for example. It’s really, when you boil everything down, a commuter train between London and Paris/Brussels, running up to 18 times a day each way. There aren’t many more trains on my suburban line in Melbourne. But the Eurostar journey is a fascinating 2¼-hour adventure in high-tech speed and comfort through the hostile environment of the Channel tunnel, which surely not even the most blasé of regular travellers could take for granted.
On the other hand, the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) in France is now commonplace, and marvellous though it is, it can be at times just a bit clinical. All those almost-straight, almost-flat lines, even at 300kmh, can induce a certain, involuntary ho-hum attitude (totally unjustified). It’s only when I get off the TGV lines, like winding relatively slowly down the Rhone Valley on the first part of the trip we did from Geneva to Paris, that my interest picks up. This tells you something about me at least, and maybe about the lure of train travel in general.
In England we took five rail journeys – London-Penzance (already chronicled in these pages), Penzance-York, the Settle and Carlisle line (return) out of York, York-London and London-Holyhead (where we took the ferry to Ireland and more trains).
The Settle and Carlisle was an out-and-out tourist experience. We could have taken the scheduled service from Leeds along this legendary line but opted to indulge ourselves on the vintage Dalesman steam-hauled train out of York, complete with Pullman-style dining. If you’re a rail fan in England in the summer this is a ride well worth spending a day on. Indeed, England, as the birthplace of railways, is world HQ for nostalgia train rides, often under steam on preserved lines in vintage rolling stock. One company alone is offering something like 50 different trips this coming summer.
London-Penzance and London-Holyhead are two of the longest trunk routes in England and travelling terminus to terminus represents something of an achievement, especially if at Holyhead you add the ferry ride to Dublin.
London-Penzance was satisfying in its engineering and shoreline scenery, as I said in an earlier piece, but somehow the Holyhead run, although interesting, was a little disappointing – probably because the Irish travel company and I managed to make a mess of the bookings and we ended up in second class facing backwards which compounded the limited vision from the English high-speed trains on this run (not as fast nor as good as the TGV, as they run on existing tracks and alignments). I guess I expected nevertheless something of the romance of the old Irish Mail to manifest itself, although that was a night train and this was in daylight.
Never mind, the train still pushes through old railway towns like Rugby and Crewe and Chester, along the coast of north Wales and to Anglesey across the Menai Strait where Brunel built one of his great bridges (burnt down by vandals some years ago). It also traces the southern bank of the Dee estuary but, if you think you might hear the tragic Mary calling her cattle home across the sands, you would be sadly mistaken. The only sound anyone is likely to hear these days is the thrashing of the hundreds of windmills futilely fuelling clean energy fantasies.
York-London is part of the east coast London-Edinburgh trunk route, worked in the glory days by the Flying Scotsman and Mallard. But our trip this time was completely utilitarian: we needed to get back to London. It was smooth, non-stop and quick – a bit under two hours for the 336km despite the four-tracks-into-two bottleneck caused by the Welwyn viaduct and tunnels, still there after more than a century. This Welwyn section, about 50km north of London King’s Cross, is one of the best parts of the line for train buffs and it was most interesting for me because for something like six months back in 1971 I used to travel over it twice a day when I earned my keep on the Stevenage Comet. Stevenage “new town” – one of those triumphs of town planning built after World War II – didn’t have a station then; the train stopped at the adjacent old Stevenage village. Of course, this couldn’t last and the “new town” has a shiny steel and glass affair I noticed as we shot through at high speed. But some things endure and it was comforting in a peculiar way to discover the old bottleneck had defied the high traffic density and the need for speed. Likewise, while the former home of the mighty Arsenal FC beside the line at Highbury is now a housing development, the imposing new stadium is not far away and therefore the Gunners logo is still an uplifting sight as you glide by.
But look, out of all that I have a candidate in England for “great railway journey” and it’s the run from Penzance to York. This train goes once a day directly, no changes required, from Penzance and terminates in Glasgow, 880km and nearly 12 hours later. There are something like 20 services every day between the south-west of England and Aberdeen in the north-east of Scotland, via Edinburgh, but they require you to change trains in various combinations. You can do the trip in reverse, too, but not without making connections. There is only one no-changer.
I discovered this train because I wanted to get from Penzance to York without tracking back through London, and I’m slightly, but only slightly, disappointed now that I didn’t make more of it with a couple of stopovers. The route takes you through the great Bristol Temple Meads station but you need to get off to explore Brunel’s original terminus and the historical port of Bristol (from which the apparent progenitor of my family in Australia was shipped – yes, that’s what I mean – around about 1832). Then there are Birmingham and all the famous old cities of the Midlands and Yorkshire . . . Derby, Sheffield, Leeds. And if, like me, you grew up in rugby league territory, when you hit Wakefield memories stir of the Wakefield Trinity club, of mud and blood, of the grand old days when “the greatest game of all” was a gladiatorial contest of a kind Rome would have found familiar.
Of course being able to travel by train diagonally across England from an odd starting point in a single trip satisfied my sense of achievement. The route in parts was somewhat off the beaten track and it made me realise more strongly than from poring over maps, as I am wont to do, just how complex and pervasive the English rail system has become since the first scheduled passenger train steamed between Manchester and Liverpool in 1830 . . . and despite the mass branch line closures of the infamous 1960s Beeching era.
It is only when you do a trip like this that you start to understand properly there may be, and often is, more than one way to get anywhere in England by rail. You can take direct routes or roundabout ones and, when you get into highly populated areas like the band across England between Yorkshire and Lancashire, anchored in the south roughly by the Birmingham conurbation and topped in the north by the rural and park lands of the Pennines, the tracks seem to go all over the place. Urban trains are rumbling around with mind-numbing frequency. The old analogy with the human circulation system holds true, and after all this is the region from which railways first spread.
Such is the demand for rail transport in Britain these days that old lines are being re-opened and new ones being built. It was, for example, a huge event recently – complete with steam engines and helicopters – when the Queen did her thing and opened the new Borders line out of Edinburgh, rebuilt half a century after it fell victim to Beeching. The currently well advanced Crossrail project (newly named the Elizabeth Line after guess who) will provide a new route across, over and under London, linking urban areas west and east of the capital. A major debate has been waxing and waning over many years now whether to build a Eurostar/TGV-style, high-speed line out of London to the north. Like spring, rail is bustin’ out all over.
One fascinating aspect of riding the train from Penzance to York was the way in which it was used along the way. It has 21 scheduled stops – five of them between Penzance and Plymouth (128km) and six between Birmingham and York (176km). On those legs, it was pretty much a local. A few people like us had reserved seats out of Penzance and were clearly going some distance (although when we alighted in York I didn’t see anybody who’d walked the plank with us in Penzance) but most were not booked and were going only a few stations. Astonishingly there seemed to be an awful lot of young mothers, with toddlers and babies in their modern, massive prams getting on and off, clogging up the passageways and vestibules as we wended our way through Cornwall and Devon, past Plymouth to Exeter, where the train turned north towards Bristol. What they were doing and where they were ultimately going I couldn’t possibly say. All I know is they seemed a bit resentful at us in our booked seats, taking up their space in their train.
After Bristol, we had a couple of hours’ peace to watch Gloucestershire glide by, and then as we headed through Birmingham and Leeds it was on again – or should I say on-off again as the parade of young mums restarted. Some passengers claimed reserved seats at various stops for longer journeys to, say, Newcastle or Edinburgh but not many, it appeared.
It has always been the case on most train services in the UK, especially in standard (second) class, that people don’t have to book seats, and usually don’t, even when going long(ish) distances, although today it’s easy enough to do on the web. When the trains are crowded, people stand, although I think that’s now discouraged. Once upon a time, when I caught the right train on my way home from Stevenage, I would get a pint at the bar and lean on a window for the half-hour or so into King’s Cross. Alas not any more: you can get a beer but there are no bars, and no easing of that tension people show at stations as they wait for their trains to arrive – you have to be quick off the mark in the scramble for seats and the woefully inadequate luggage space.
Anyway, that’s just an observation about what is, when you are able to look at it from a distance as the locals can’t, a remarkable ride. People everywhere complain about their trains while foreigners often can’t see the problem. To me our journey from Penzance to York serves as a symbol not only of the great age of railway construction in Britain but also of the best in Victorian engineering and commerce. Competing companies then, both large and small, built railway lines for particular markets and it was only much later seen that they’d created an organic network which grouping (the 1920s forced mergers of companies and lines), nationalisation (British Rail) and Beeching couldn’t kill.
It is only now that I realise how serendipitous it was that, in planning our trip to England after a long time away, I made Cornwall and York its highlights. Neither my wife nor I had been to Cornwall and I wanted to go there by train along the coastal line through Dawlish. In York, the prime objective was to visit the National Rail Museum and also to have a look at this famous medieval city. I had been to the NRM some years ago but on a day trip out of London, so I had seen nothing of quite one of the most captivating cities in England. Without those self-set imperatives, we would never have even contemplated the journey at all.
I think now how magical it was to traverse England from Land’s End across its heartland by train, alight on the long, curving platform of York station, still a grand, airy example of Victorian cast iron and arching roofs that has managed to survive both German bombing and crass commercialisation, and step immediately into the Royal York Hotel, one of those spacious, spreading edifices that once accompanied all the major stations.
A short walk back through the station took us to the museum, celebrating the technological and cultural growth of railways over nearly 200 years. The positioning of the museum in York and the station’s architecture reflect the city’s history as an important railway hub. A slightly longer walk in the opposite direction through the city walls, across the River Ouse towards York Minster opened up for us nearly 2000 years of history. York was founded by the Romans. If you like, you can ride a road train from the station to the cathedral. I wonder if the width between its wheels is 4ft 8½in (1435mm), which is what’s become standard gauge on railways and by popular myth conforms to the distance between cart wheel ruts on old Roman roads.
Oh yes, I enjoyed the trip all right. Does Penzance to York by train constitute a great rail journey? I think so – with one proviso: Penzance to Glasgow via Bristol, Birmingham, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh might be even greater. Next time.