This is the age of the train

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If you really want to make your flesh crawl (even more than by watching George Osborne deliver his latest pasty-taxing or cripple-kicking budget) take a look at Jimmy Savile lauding “the age of the train”.

We did not know then that Savile would be exposed, 25 years later, as a serial paedophile; though how it escaped our attention that he was a sinister and talentless creep is altogether harder to fathom. But in those days, whether you wanted people to fasten their seatbelts or forsake their cars for the railway, Savile was your man.

Not that it did much to shift the image of the train as a relic of a bygone era. The popular joke about “the age of the train” was that it was around 75. Surly staff, regular strikes, scruffy carriages, chronic unreliability and those curling white bread sandwiches in the overpriced buffet cars all combined to make British Rail a national joke.

When I started weekly commuting between Alnmouth and London in 1987, my car and Alan Beith’s mobile office were often the only vehicles in the station car park. Now, even after a massive extension, the place is full to bursting every day.

Electrification, then privatisation under the splendidly customer-focused GNER, helped to make the East Coast travel experience increasingly pleasurable over the succeeding years.

Nationally, rail passenger journey numbers at 1.65 billion per year (and rising) are now double those of the mid-1990s and exceed even the previous record level reached during the First World War – on a network that has dramatically shrunk in size.

GBR_rail_passengers_by_year_1830-2015
Great Britain rail passenger journeys 1830-2015. Source: Wikipedia

Today some of our biggest infrastructure investments are in rail, whether in new lines under London or the HS2 vanity project allegedly designed to boost the economies of the North and Midlands. Though if it ever gets built I’d risk a substantial wager that it will actually just suck more commuters and businesses into the great, gurgling plughole that is our capital.

All this would have seemed utterly fanciful when I was a boy. Trains were so yesterday. All around the country branch lines were being axed, tracks and sidings hastily ripped up, goods services withdrawn and stations closed.

In 1965 Dr Beeching even proposed to close the East Coast Main Line north of Newcastle. To rub salt in the wound, every few weeks The Journal published yet another letter from the Railway Conversion League proposing that what was left of the rail network should be turned into roads, because those so clearly represented the future.

It tore at my heart because I had loved trains from the moment I was old enough to clamber onto the fence and watch the steam locomotives shunting in the sidings at Little Benton, as the great London to Edinburgh expresses thundered past.

Little Benton North

Sadly, poverty and indolence prevented me from joining many of my school contemporaries on the last train to Woodburn, Northumberland in 1966, or over the Waverley route between Carlisle and Edinburgh in 1969. But I do have happy memories of travelling on one of the last trains to Keswick in 1972, and over the Haltwhistle to Alston branch shortly before it closed in 1976.

Even as late as 1983, melancholy closure notices were posted along the magnificent Settle to Carlisle main line, since reprieved and surely overdue for designation as one of the planet’s longest and narrowest World Heritage Sites.

S&C closure notice

For decades, the railways had seemed like a once great but now enfeebled army in retreat, limping into history with their superannuated cavalry and rusty muskets as the road lobby surged forward with their tanks and tactical nuclear missiles.

Yet today the future is apparently represented by trains on steel rails, built to George Stephenson’s original Killingworth gauge of 4ft 8½in.  And it does not stop there. The Government is also proposing to allow trials of driverless lorries on the M6, operating in convoys controlled by the leading truck. If only there was a word to describe a concept like that.

So much may change in the period of 30 years that is usually categorised as a generation. The 19th century invention called the train has gone from an antique joke to the shining future. Jimmy Savile has sunk from implausible national treasure to pariah.

With any luck the even older invention called the nation state may be about to secure a new lease of life as events unfold in the coming months. After all, as I hope this column demonstrates, stranger things have happened.

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