Michael Williams, On the Slow Train, twelve Great British railway journeys, Preface Publishing, £14 99.
Britain’s love affair with the train is based on romance, rather than reality. It is not the modern trains branded with the garish vinyls of the privatised operators, hurtling up and down the country at 125mph that excites the imagination, nor the commuter tin boxes crammed daily to the gunwales at Waterloo. No, it is the trains chundering slowly along minor and branch lines that warm the cockles of the rail enthusiast’s heart and Michael Williams reminds us that there are quite a few survivors of the Beeching cuts which can still be enjoyed and, indeed, which are flourishing.
In Cornwall, he discovers the country’s most profitable branch line, from the main line to St Ives, used by most visitors to the town; in Wales, he travels, suitably slowly, on the heart-of-Wales line which would have been closed years ago had it not traversed a host of marginal seats; and in Scotland he enjoys the treats offered by the Deerstalker Express up to Fort William, taking in the most remote railway in Britain, the West Highland line to Mallaig.
His dozen journeys take us up and down numerous byways of the rail system stretching across Britian on what I have called the Agatha Christie railway to stations where you still expect to be greeted by a hunchbacked porter with a cart and horse. The reality is a bit harsher, since minor stations are nowadays unstaffed, but Williams manages to meet a range of characters who enliven the book and provide evidence of a Britain that is often as forgotten as the lines on which he travels.
That is the strength of the book: Williams does not just offer the journey but takes us through the history of each line and, importantly, meets the people who have campaigned to keep them open or who ensure their smooth operation. Many of these lines would have disappeared without the efforts of local people who fought for their survival and ensured their continued prosperity. The activity of these volunteers range from putting timetables through the doors of residents who, surprisingly, may be unaware of the existence of a passenger railway on their doorstep, to refurbishing stations by people like the remarkably active Friends of the Settle-Carlisle line. He savours old-fashioned dinners cooked on board and encounters staff who love the railways as much as he does and who are a different species from the jobsworths on the main lines who seem to delight in making life as uncomfortable as possible for passengers.
Several of the lines, though, are less loved and cared for. They are operated by soulless diesel trains, often consisting of one carriage, on tracks which desperately need repair. The saddest is undoubtedly the long, tortuous journey along the Cumbrian coast between Carnforth and Carlisle, via Barrow and Workington, epitomised by the fact that these towns once boasted proud footlball league clubs which are now struggling in leagues sponsored by obscure companies. Here Williams discovers a lost Britain of abandoned shipyards, closed steelworks and the Sellafield nuclear plant, connected by a railway line which, in a more rational world, could be used as a catalyst for regeneration rather than being as rundown as the area it serves.
While Williams takes us assiduously around the country, there are several gaps that he must have cannily left on purpose, such as the Highland line to Wick and Thurso, the West Country services that touch the sea at Dawlish and the Cambrian Coast line to ensure that we can expect a second volume. Even in the age of the Pendolino and the Eurostar, the slow train lives on.