In the absence of my having written for the blog anything worth reading, here’s the next best thing: some frivolous nonsense that I amused myself with on the train a while back and couldn’t be bothered editing into shape. It’s basically 5 minutes that you’ll never get back.
Despite the timeless complaints of rising fares, overcrowded commuter trains, and the engineering work that forces us to sit around for an infuriating few minutes longer than we had scheduled for, a romanticism remains attached to the railway. It might be hard to find when we’re waiting on a signal failure outside Clapham Junction, but it all comes back when we escape the peak time commuter train and take to the tracks not so much for transport but for travel.
Partly it is the change of scene. Partly the scenes themselves: the landscape and architecture and history that we pass through. The great gothic brick terminus stations with their vast glass trainsheds, and the lichen-covered concrete of the art deco signal boxes beside the line. The high viaducts over big rivers, and the tunnels that take you to some surprising new scene. It’s the lush green embankments marching through the flat fens and low wolds, and gently curving as they snake through high Pennine moors of Yorkshire and bleak empty wildernesses of the West Highlands and Sutherland. It’s the sea spray on the window beside the beach at Dawlish, and the crowd of crossings on the Tyne. The crawl of the ironically named “sprinter” train on the Cambrian Coast route, treading a careful line between the beaches of Cardigan Bay and the peaks of Snowdonia. The tangle of the brick arch viaducts with the rivers and canals on the final approaches to Manchester Deansgate and Birmingham New Street, and that mysterious metallic clatter in the tunnel between Edinburghs Waverley and Haymarket.
It’s the Britain that the railways tied together, not the railways themselves. Oh no. I have little time for romanticisation of the trains themselves, or the selective memory that comes with it. I have no longing for the era when thousands died from the lung diseases caused from a lifetime breathing air thick with soot; no longing for the time when deaths in train crashes were almost as casually accepted as deaths on our roads still are today. I have no illusions about the comfort and customer service offered by the early railway companies, who went out of their way to make the third class services — which they had been reluctantly compelled to provide with regulated fares — as unappealing as possible.
I like the fact that stations these days are well lit and relatively free from the fear of crime; I like the fact that wheelchair users can (mostly) access today’s trains, and the visually impaired can see where the doors are; I like the fact that the clickety-clack rhythm has been traded for safe and reliable continuously welded track. The high costs, overcrowding and unreliability of long distance commutes may be modern phenomena — but only because modern trains are fast enough, efficient enough and reliable enough to enable the lifestyle choice of long distance commuting. The modern railway, for all its imperfections, is far better than the imagined romantic railway of the past, and I have no time for those who complain that this or that aspect of it lacks the “character” that it once had.
That is, until they ruined my local station with stainless steel fixtures. Templecombe, an unimportant little station in a plain village in an unassuming corner of Somerset, is one of those places that means so much more to those who romanticise the railway than its hourly service of early 1990s diesel units to Waterloo would suggest. The station represents all that was lost of the railways and all that went into saving them. Once a busy interchange between the Somerset and Dorset Railway and the Southern Railway’s main line to the West Country — one half of a fierce competition with the Great Western for the custom of London’s holidaymakers — the station has lost entirely one of its lines, and had the other — finally thoroughly defeated — reduced to a single track shadow of its former self and left to decline for several decades. The station itself was one of the many closed in the Beeching Axe, and perhaps its main claim to fame comes from being one of the first to have reopened, thanks to the hard work of campaigners and volunteers in the 1980s.
It’s thanks to those volunteers and campaigners that Templecombe has those things that give the railway its character. The elegant brick signal box with its old-fashioned futuristic style, and the Victorian iron footbridge with its once carefully painted orange, white and blue detailing. The little waiting room decorated inside with vintage posters and large photographs of the station’s past, and the carefully tended flower borders behind the platform. That was, until they ruined it with stainless steel fixtures. On one of the country’s last remaining lines to be controlled by old fashioned lever-operated points and signals, worked by signalmen in signal boxes at stations along the line, Templecombe and its neighbours have always, out of operational necessity, been staffed full time. Until, that was, the commissioning of the line’s new modern signalling system in the spring, allowing all of its station staff to be replaced with a computer in a Basingstoke office block.
With no staff left to help wheelchair users cross the single remaining track to the isolated platform, a new accessible platform — a flat pack pre-fab — had to be added on the near side. Characterless concrete with a thin smear of tarmac, no vintage posters are pinned to the stainless steel “shelter” with its deliberately uncomfortable rough sleeper-repelling seating, no baskets of flowers hang from the stainless steel lamp columns, no orange, white and blue hides the stainless steel of the perimeter security fencing.
It turns out that the olden days were definitely better — but only the ones between when I was born and when I turned into a nostalgic old man.