I Have Never Liked Trains…

It’s hard not to notice the BBC’s fascination with railways. Not that I watch TV, but I often have iPlayer rumbling away in the background as I work. This week we were offered Snowdrift at Bleath Gill (a terrifying story of a train trapped in snow), Time Shift (the last days of steam, again), Absolutely Chuffed (an amazing tale – yawns – of a group of guys that in 1990 built a steam train from scratch), Railway Walks (Extreme walking – on train tracks!), The Essay (Russian trains), London to Brighton Side by Side (a fascinating tele-visual feast this – ‘In 1953 the BBC made a point-of-view film from the London-Brighton train. In 1983 they did it again. This film shows both concurrently, with every bridge, tunnel and station’) and Ian Hislop Goes Off The Rails (some funny bloke and trains). I didn’t watch any of these assuredly fascinating and hilarious takes on railways past and present, but the titles and descriptions chugged around in the grey matter, journeying along my synapses and somehow leaving lasting impressions scattered through the branch lines of my mind.And suddenly it came to me, like a runaway express hitting the buffers, ‘take the train and ease the strain’.How about replacing petrol head with railway aficionado for a bit. So this week will see me once again become a regular rail user, but I do this with some trepidation. The foreboding is building.

Now, trains are not all about sex, in fact you may think ‘far from it’ as your daily commute trundles on, misted by the damp clothes and body heat of fellow rail users, but think again. The phallic length of the carriages, the oh so sure glide into the moist air of the tunnel, the regular motion as the train bumps and grinds over the tracks – not quite industrial tumble dryer, but hypnotically repetitive – and the spillage of the many as the journey reaches its climax at anywhere central.Hmmm, perhaps I am painting too tempting a picture of the delights of rail travel, a hedonistic haven to be visited twice daily. Well, join me for a short while as we journey to the dark-side.

I spent many a trip as a young teen being chatted up by middle-aged predatory men. These experiences were not welcome or comfortable. ‘I bet you like camp-ing’ being a memorable response to my innocent reply to the question ‘what do you like to get up to at weekends?’. Or the rather all too familiar behaviour of a stranger sitting just that tad closer than necessary in an un-crowded compartment.Many female friends have had unpleasant experiences on trains, a quick hand up the skirt prior to the train pulling away from the station, an unwanted request for a phone number or perhaps a grope in a crowded rush hour carriage. All disturbing stuff, unless you’re a Japanese businessman.Train sex is uniquely specialised in Japan. There are several ‘places’ where men can go to live out a rather worrying fantasy. The set up is this: You enter the building and inside is a railway carriage and fake platform. The men get onto the train and ‘schoolgirls’ are standing within the carriage. The men can ‘touch up’ these paid sex workers and then depart as the train, upon completion of its fantasy journey, pulls into its imaginary station. 

I have commuted for England! At the tender age of eleven I joined the ranks of office workers and middle management, taking the 7.50am train from Beckenham Hill to Blackfriars for the sole purpose of an education that would see me at sea. All of the early starts to ensure a successful commute to the London Nautical School seem somehow to have robbed me of a normal life. Rather than journeying with weary adults I should have been kicking piles of leaves, or fighting, or something.  And at the end of my schooling I didn’t join the navy, instead I was off to work for BT so the 7.50am was my chariot to office tedium. I was now an adult commuter. The journey should have felt different, but it didn’t.At twenty I had had enough! I left BT for a life in the country which lasted, rather unsurprisingly, until the money ran out. Then foolishly I returned to the city and the 7.50am, this time to be employed by Her Majesty, not at her leisure I hasten to add, but at that fine lump of medieval limestone, Westminster Abbey.I had been travelling the Beckenham Hill to Blackfriars line for twelve years before leaving my fellow passengers, strangers one and all, to their fate. I made my move to the valleys of South Wales, the once proud industrial heart of the English economy, where trains are few and far between and the chosen mode of transport of the masses was the motor car.I don’t look back upon the daily commute with fondness.  Squished into a carriage, held trapped against the door praying that ‘for god’s sake, please don’t open at this speed’ or sat agonizingly tuned into the tinny noise pollution of a walkman. No, I don’t look back at all. But I am grateful for safe journeys. 

An unfortunate neighbour of mine has experienced horror in her life and she is a markedly changed woman. After living through the Clapham Junction rail crash of 1988 her ability to function effectively under stress was diminished, clearly highlighted by the many driving tests, her attempt to escape from further rail journeys. Two years later she managed to board the train that crashed into the buffers at Cannon Street. She’s a brave soul though, still making rail journeys.We are all close to people who have been involved with train troubles, even if by six degrees of separation, we all know of someone who has jumped, someone who has been injured. A friend from my school days famously ‘head-butted’ a moving train. After a good deal of time away he returned to us a markedly changed boy.Its very nature, the destructive power of the railway, lends to its mechanical majesty a supernatural folklore that continues to burgeon. 

Railway platforms, sidings, carriages and branch line stations are the stuff of ghostly productions from Ealing or Pinewood. Remember those points with a seeming mind of their own, the mystery ticket collector forever making his way through the carriages of eternity or the shrieking of a passenger in abject fear, hurtling through the darkness of the night. But fact, it is said, is stranger than fiction.Charles Peck was involved in a train crash just a couple of weeks ago. Charles Peck called his son from his mobile phone. His son picked up the call and said ‘my dad just called me. He didn’t say anything’.  Charles Peck called his stepmother, his brother his sister and his fiancé. In total 36 calls were made to family members who simply heard static. By now the family knew that something was wrong and they called emergency services who, after deducting that Charles Peck may have been on the recently crashed train, renewed their search for survivors. There were none. But the calls kept on coming until an hour before Charles Pecks remains were recovered from the wreck. Charles Peck was killed in a train crash. Charles Peck was at the front of the train and was killed on impact. 

One ought to take care when browsing the BBC iPlayer listings. There is perhaps a magic at work, the magic of osmosis of information, through the screen and into our psyche.You know, writing this has helped me, it’s been cathartic. Aunties choo choo spell is braking, grinding to a halt. And it came to me, screaming along those synaptic tracks with the intense power of a steam trains whistle. Take the train and, well, I might just have to re-think the train crashing brain wave. Already the foreboding is lifting.