Welcome to train-spotting paradise

The Eurostar hurtles into Paris just two hours after it left London, captivating Hugo in the process. Photos: Craig Borley
The Eurostar hurtles into Paris just two hours after it left London, captivating Hugo in the process. Photos: Craig Borley
A tour of England’s trains proves there’s life yet in locomotives, writes Craig Borley.

For some reason, some kids like trains. And, for some reason, our son turned out to be one of them. So when a work trip took us to the United kingdom, we decided to savage the mortgage and bring the lad along for a short tour of England's trainy treats.

We travelled in April and spring showed why the country is famed for its hedgerows and gardens. London's parks, especially, were a welcome jet-lag antidote when our body clocks woke us early on the first few crisp mornings.

Our first train experience was less serene - joining half of London's population on one cramped underground train. It didn't start that way, though. When the quintessential tube train pulled up at Heathrow's station to take us via the Piccadilly Line to Earl's Court, our 6-year-old, Hugo, had the space to dance around our near-empty carriage.

The London Underground 1973 Stock trains still call at the Piccadilly Line’s Earls Court station.
The London Underground 1973 Stock trains still call at the Piccadilly Line’s Earls Court station.
And dance he did. The red, white and blue colour scheme, the flat-faced front with the eye-like headlights and half-moon roof, was immediately recognisable - in fact it could have been the same train as the one on his bedroom wall back in Dunedin. There are a lot of train pictures on his bedroom wall.

Seeing a train as iconic as the Piccadilly Line's London Underground 1973 Stock for the first time is a bit like meeting a celebrity for the first time: you're struck by just how real it is.

But the wonder is replaced by the bored normality shown in the faces of our fellow passengers. All in one trip a bedroom-wall icon becomes real, then becomes just a means of convenient transport, before becoming something you simply endure in solidarity with a bunch of strangers.

And wow, do those strangers pile on. At each stop more squeeze in and none, it seems, get out.

Hugo takes the driver’s seat while the engineer takes a break at West Sussex’s Bluebell Railway.
Hugo takes the driver’s seat while the engineer takes a break at West Sussex’s Bluebell Railway.
Hugo doesn't mind. We linger at Earl's Court station so he can watch other trains come and go, bringing with them the rush of air and the eery squeals of wheels and rails never heard at home.

A few days later, we leave the Tube behind for the Bluebell Railway in West Sussex. Hugo wanted to ride a real steam train and it turned out the difficulty granting such a request wasn't in finding an opportunity but in choosing between dozens of brilliant, reasonably-priced options.

Britain's age of steam ended in 1968. Since then hundreds of steam locomotives have been retained, restored and run on railways no longer in commercial use. The Bluebell Railway - just a half-hour north of Brighton - is one of them and shows off quintessential countryside and fairytale stations.

Hugo notices these atheistically-pleasing details, but for him the star of the show is the steam. And the smoke. And the noise. Oh, the noise. It's like a carnival of mechanical music. Whistles, thumping pistons, steam escaping, coal shovels scraping, steel wheels squealing and clattering, perfectly-attired men calling ''all aboard'' and all of it interspersed with noises of wonder from children and adults alike.

You can get up close and personal with Flying Scotsman’s incredible driver’s cabin at York’s...
You can get up close and personal with Flying Scotsman’s incredible driver’s cabin at York’s National Railway Museum.
At the end of the day, Hugo's open-mouth gaze at one of the engines - ready and steaming for its next excursion - catches the eye of a driver who invites him to sit in the driver's seat. The wee lad is near speechless for the next few minutes.

I'm not convinced something as static as a railway museum will offer a comparable experience. Nevertheless that's where we end up later that week, in the northern city of York.

York, it must be said, is far more beautiful than any city has any right to be. But it is for the National Railway Museum that this diversion was planned and, on the surface, it seems unwarranted. A museum of trains? That don't actually go? Boring, right?

The Bluebell Railway relives the magic of steam at its picturesque Sussex location.
The Bluebell Railway relives the magic of steam at its picturesque Sussex location.
Not boring. It feels like those old movies where the kids shrink and normal, everyday things take on a weird, over-sized perspective. Because I'm used to museums. I'm used to wandering around static displays. I'm just not used to those displays all being enormous trains. Each train - and there are hundreds of locomotives and carriages and wagons on display - is real, full-sized. And trains are big. Really big.

There is an original Japanese ''bullet train''. There are steam and diesel and electric trains of all shapes and sizes. There are trains which once hauled kings and queens - and are maintained in their splendorous prime.

But more importantly to Hugo is the display of some of the true rock stars of British trains, the ones pinned to his wall at home.

There is Rocket, or at least a life-size replica of the engineering marvel that could go nearly 50kmh nearly 200 years ago. Then, in its splendid green and black livery, we find the 96-year-old LNER Class A3 4472 Flying Scotsman, the first train to officially break the 100mph barrier.

These are show-stoppers and Hugo looks at them with reverential silence, punctuated by questions about whether he can go for a ride on them. No, he can't.

But they are not his ''most favourite''. That position is reserved for the fastest steam train of all, the LNER A4 Pacific Class pin-up, Mallard. Built in 1938, Mallard broke the world speed record for steam locomotives that same year, registering a blistering 203kmh. Hugo gapes at the blue streamlined beast sitting perfectly preserved. He runs his hand over the shiny surface. He climbs the steps to peer into the driver's cabin. It might be static, but it's so impressive, so accessible, it really doesn't matter.

The Mallard, the fastest of all steam trains, is free to touch, gape at and peer inside at York’s National Railway Museum.
The Mallard, the fastest of all steam trains, is free to touch, gape at and peer inside at York’s National Railway Museum.
The speeds these steam trains reached is staggering. But of course, they had their problems. They were smelly, noisy, smokey and a fire hazard. They demanded copious amounts of coal and water - and the infrastructure to service that demand. The diesel engines which replaced them were far more convenient.

Then came the electric revolution. The electric locomotives' smooth, strong, silent acceleration and immense top speeds have cemented steam locomotives to the ''history'' annals. I notice this a few days later as the Eurostar pulls out of St Pancras station, London, for the last train trip of our journey. It's one Hugo wanted to do very badly. Why?

''Because it's fast,'' he says, and he's right - with an operating speed in excess of 300kmh.

''Because it goes underwater,'' he continues, and even for an adult the thrill of what the Channel Tunnel has achieved is cool. It just is.

''And it looks good,'' he adds - the clincher. I can't argue. Some buses look decent, certainly airliners too, but no mass-transit options look as good as a high-speed train sporting a decent livery. The silver, blue and yellow of the Eurostar is up there with the best.

But it's different from the steam trains we saw a few days ago. Those were impressive, certainly - imposing testaments to the possible's conquering of the seemingly impossible. But the Eurostar - slick, sleek, shiny, smooth, sculpted and elegant - has a different impact. It looks gentler, calmer, friendlier, somehow. There's no prominent monument to fire and smoke like there is atop a steam locomotive. There aren't the giant driving wheels and connecting rods so visible when we stood beside Flying Scotsman. There isn't the workman-like drivers' cabin, complete with hatch to shovel smelly, sooty black coal into a roaring furnace.

Much of the intimidation is gone, yet the basic concept remains. Powerful motors pull carriages full of people on tracks laid down for the purpose, scathing through fields and cities uninterrupted.

It makes me think - will the future see trains like this become the museum centrepieces Mallard, Flying Scotsman and Rocket are today? Will Hugo's grandchildren gape at the Eurostar in an etiquette-filled exhibition hall? And what, at that time, will have succeeded these marvels of engineering?

We hurtle into France in near-silence and complete comfort, smug in the knowledge there will be no airport negotiation at journey's end, no connecting trips to the city centre, no baggage carousel rigmarole.

But these aren't the best things about travelling by train. The best thing is how beautiful an experience it is with a family. When Hugo spies something out the window we all turn to look, relaxed, without worrying about taking our eyes off the road like we must in a car, or having to peer over two other seats to squint out a tiny window like we must in a plane.

We face each other, sharing a table, in each other's company as our journey speeds onwards. We can hear each other, share the wonder of travel with each other. We can get up and walk to the cafe carriage together.

It is at this moment I realise the true allure of trains. It's that ability to travel peacefully, comfortably, socially, point-to-point at great speeds over great distances in a manner no other transport solution has got close to beating.

It isn't nostalgia or romanticism. It's a dawning understanding that travelling by train, with your family sitting opposite you and your destination rushing into view, is simply unbeatable.

Those famous trains of yesteryear may have ended their operational lives, but the story they starred in is still running. And right now, I realise as countryside becomes suburbia before morphing into inner-city Paris, we're inside that story.

 

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