Monday 19 October 2009

In Praise of Trains

A few days ago I was sitting on the train watching the autumn colours of the Strathspey woods slide past the windows and feeling relaxed with a day of views, reading, talking and buffet cars ahead of me. As the woods gave way to moorland and misty hills and the train began the climb up to the Drumochter Pass I thought how much I relish train travel, how enjoyable it feels compared with the stress of journeys by car, whether as driver or passenger. There is a freedom in train travel that just isn’t there when confined to a tiny metal box hurtling along in a mass of other harassed tin cans. Train travel is civilised, in fact. Train travel does not require attention to be given to the mechanics of travel or the behaviour of those controlling other vehicles. On trains you can think, contemplate, imagine, learn. After a car journey of a couple of hours or more I need some time to recover and adapt. After a train journey I am ready for whatever comes next. And that’s despite the appallingly mismanaged mess that is the British railway system; though it barely deserves the last word, being a hotchpotch of inefficient competing and interlinked companies that resulted from the botched privatisation of the last Tory government. British Rail was far better than the current shambles even though it was in decline due to years of under investment by uninterested governments. A return to a single nationalised company is the only way to have an efficient railway run as a public service rather than to make money but I can’t see any of today’s unimaginative, managerial, blinkered politicians even contemplating this. There is a Facebook Bring Back British Rail campaign, which I welcome though I can’t see it achieving its aim any time soon.

Train journeys feel part of my backpacking and hiking in a way that cars don’t, even though I travel by car more often these days, at least in the Scottish Highlands. Once, though, all my walks started with a train journey – to Windermere for the Lake District, the North Wales coast for Snowdonia, Edale for the Dark Peak and north into the Highlands for the Cairngorms, Torridon, Knoydart, Arrochar and more. Using trains there’s no need to return to a start point so they are ideal for through routes. There’s time to watch the landscape and the wilds too. Looking at the beautiful woods alongside Loch Lomond and then sweeping across the open lochan-dotted expanse of Rannoch Moor en route to Fort William and Ben Nevis. And on from the Fort beside the golden sands of Arisaig and Morar to Mallaig and the ferry to Inverie and Knoydart. Wonderful journeys! Sometimes alighting at lonely Corrour station and walking through to Glen Nevis and Fort William or across the hills to Dalwhinnie station. There are many options, many possible adventures.

Other countries, other trains. One of my favourite train journeys is that overnight from Stockholm north to Arctic Sweden. The big wallowing train lumbers out through the suburbs, past factories and houses and industry, as you settle down to sleep. Then morning comes with a vista of vast conifer forests and distant snow-capped hills. During the night the world has changed and is suddenly magical. Several years ago I caught the train south through the Channel Tunnel and on across France to the Queyras Alps. I left the train at dawn and walked up into the hills from the station. Two weeks later I walked back down again and caught the train home. Once in the USA, not the ideal country for train travel, I caught the California Zephyr from Salt Lake City to Martinez in California across deserts, mountains and rich farmland. In Martinez I visited John Muir’s house then caught more trains to San Francisco and Merced, where a bus took me to Yosemite National Park.

I think we need more trains.

Photo info: Top – train approaching Achnasheen station on a frosty morning. Canon EOS 350D, 18-55 lens@49mm, 1/640@f5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.5
Bottom - Hebden Bridge station. Sigma DP1, 1/80@f5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.5.


  1. Nice post Chris. This brings back happy memories -- particularly the overnight train from Stockholm up to Gällivare. Being lulled to sleep by the rocking of the train and level crossing bells, then waking up north of the arctic circle -- magic! (And the Padjelanta trail wan't half bad either!)

  2. Agreed that we need more trains - everyone should have one!

    Seriously, like Andy, I agree 100%. We also need more stations - the Settle/Carlisle lines runs within about 400 yards past Stainforth, yet there's no station. Okay, Settle's only two miles away but the buses aren't frequent enough to make that viable all the time, for everyone.

    So, more trains, and more stations please. Is it PC to ask for more steam trains? The Tornado – the first new mainline steam engine to be built in Britain for nearly five decades - came by twice the other weekend and it was spectacular (if only for a minute!). As you'll know, it's a Peppercorn class A1 Pacific engine, built in Darlington and funded by enthusiasts (isn't cut & paste wonderful!).

  3. Well, writing about trains obviously struck a chord! I don't think comments have arrived so fast before.

    Paul, the Padjelanta Trail is certainly excellent. And so is the Kungsleden and the Troms Border Trail. And Sarek National Park. There's lots of wonderful country up there.

    John, the only trains I see regularly are steam trains! On the Strathspey Railway, which doesn't yet reach all the way to Grantown-on-Spey but is supposed to eventually. As it did before the arch vandal Beeching destroyed the line. I'd rather have a scheduled rail service than a volunteer tourist one however.

  4. Agree again Chris.
    I should have spotted that the train in the pic above was parked at Hebden Bridge station - the cafe there is pretty darned good, as you might expect in Hebden Bridge.

    Hebden's a commuter town as much as it is a tourist town, as much as it is an alternative-everything town.

    Commuters heading to Leeds in a morning have parties and more on the train, so well have they got to know each other. That kind of thing should encourage more folk to use trains, I hope.

  5. John, that photo of Hebden Bridge station was taken last Friday. We were there for the weekend. Didn't go in the cafe though I have been in before. I was surprised how many visitors were in Hebden given the time of year. Mind you, we went to Howarth on the Saturday and it was even busier.

  6. Just liked the comment! Havn't been on a train in years - shame on me. Lynne fae Kyle of Lochalsh

  7. A fortnight ago I took the train out of Manchester to Edale and then hiked across the Kinder Plateau via Crowden Head to Glossop where I met up with the missus at her folks for tea then home. I actually bought TGO from WH Smiths at Manchester Picadilly and read your off the path article on the way which included a bit about wher eI was going that day! This weekend I have been away for three days backpacking in Scotland, flew up to Glasgow and met friends then Saturday night after doing the Cobbler I got a train from Tyndrum to Corrour Station in the dark. Spent three days at Loch Ossian wild camping and sleeping in a secret shed the YHA manager told me about. Used the train again to get home from Rannoch Station, firstly to Tyndrum for an overnight at the hostel then home. The journey showed me parts of Scotland I hadn't seen before like the train journey along Loch Long and the surprisingly wild north shore of the River Clyde estuary where there was hundreds if not thousands of Oyster Catchers. I'll definitely be getting the train again, reading a book and admiring the Howgills is far better than having to stress at some rat racing fool driving up your rear end on the M6!

  8. I think it depends iupon which train service you are using. Down here in the South East train journeys are absolutely ghastly - usually accompanied by grim, grey-faced commuters with a persoanlity by-pass.

    Trains 'up-north' are an altogether better experience.

    Down here I would travel in my car every time, without fail.

    That nice Doctor Beeching actually saved the Rail network from being shut down, so without his efforts you would not be enjoying the rail network there is currently - but perhaps he was slightly over enthusiastic with his axe?

  9. Alan, I'm well aware that some train journeys are ghastly. The privatised railways are an inefficient mess. When I visit my mother in Southport I end up on a rickety, bumpy, dirty train from Wigan to Southport. Commuting on trains like this every day would be hell. Mind you, people I know who commute by car in the south-east tell me that is hell too.

    I don't believe Beeching saved the railways. The governments of the day - Labour and Tory - expected the railways to slowly disappear anyway. It was their lack of vision and lack of investment that led to the Beeching cuts. None of his cuts were necessary. They were expedient for governments who didn't want to support railways and who thought they were an anachronism and would be replaced by cars.

    If the railways had been completely closed down we would now be spending vast sums reopening them. As it is far more tax payers money goes to subsidise the railways than was necessary when they were publicly owned. And vast sums are being spent rebuilding lines that were closed by Beeching. For example the Scottish Borders were left with no rail links by Beeching - and have suffered economically ever since. A new line is now being built there at an estimated cost of £235-295 million:

    Areas like this should never have been left without railways for forty years.

  10. We need to slow down. Trains let you see the minutia of life as you pass by...cows, sheep, a milk wagon, builders at work, the view. This is good. Wish we still had them in the US.

  11. ertainly I agree with what you say Chris; however, there is a downside and that is the cost of fares. Even with advanced booking fares are pushed beyond what I can afford. Having lost my job and with no work prospects in the immediate future getting to the hills is becoming difficult. Mostly now I have to travel on the coach services. Heading up to Aviemore involves a twelve hour run on the night bus with just one comfort break.For me, that involves a lot of stress. This is often highlighted over on my blog pages; please feel free to browse them. Oddly it is cheaper and easier to get to the Cairngorms by coach than attempting to travel to Wales. By the by, I can vaguely remember the original Waverly line. Yes, more trains please, but also with some sane and sensible prices.

  12. You do Philip! Steph, Robert and I enjoyed a good train journey en route for Yosemite two years ago before we set out for the John Muir Trail. The US could enjoy more superb train journeys – it's such a shame that it seems obsessed with personal vehicle ownership... SUVs RUVs etc etc.

  13. Dawn, I'm sorry to hear about your work problems. Good luck for the future.
    Fares are a big problem and part of the mess the railways are in. It can be very frustrating trying to find the cheapest fares, which sometimes involves buying singles for some parts of a journey and returns for other parts. I spend too much time doing this.
    I could not manage a 12 hour bus journey with just one break.