The last train
I am back at home in the countryside. I’ve retreated here for just two nights to pick up some things and to hopefully kick off the final dregs of the flu with some home cooking and maternal medicine.
My journey was a little step back in time. It’s been several years since I last took the well used cross country train from Sheffield back to Norfolk. While many of my friends complain vociferously about the uncomfortable, overcrowded and unreliable Voyager trains that criss-cross the country from north to south, we impoverished East Anglians could only envy them. The Liverpool – Manchester – Sheffield – Nottingham – Peterborough – Norwich train is an embarrassment, a living remnant of an actual British Rail strategy that sought to discourage people from the taking the train, because it was becoming so overcrowded. Fares went up and the trains got smaller (two carriages is normal, three is a gift from above) but still the passengers came. And throughout my undergraduate years at Sheffield, I got rather good at fighting my way violently onto the Friday evening train from Sheffield to Norwich. It was always so crowded that it was not unusual for it to leave people behind on the platform and for people to end up standing or sitting on the floor for much of the journey.
Hunting the elusive cheap tickets, I booked myself on the last train out of Sheffield on Friday evening, and when it pulled into the station, did the usual act of using my elbows, legs and luggage as means to stop other passengers from acquiring my seat. It worked, an I was able to sink down and hide behind my laptop as I caught up on some studio work for the rest of the journey. It was dark before we left, and the crowded train was full of people going home from work, families returning from days out and students going home for the weekend. Across from me, two recent graduates who studied at Nottingham yakked on incessantly about how ‘wrecked’ they planned to get as soon as they got to Nottingham (“…do you think we could ask the cab driver to stop at Threshers so we could pick up a bottle of vodka for the ride there?” etc). The combination of overpriced and under-served public transport was not enhanced by moronic company, and I remembered the Canadian news reports I had seen that told with horror of Britain’s booze culture.
From station to station, my journey takes three hours, and is neatly divided into three segments by major stations. After an hour, the annoying fare dodging female pair (who admitted to each other just before getting off the train that maybe they didn’t want to get too ‘wrecked’ after all, and were just saying that so as not to spoil the moment) and several hundred other passengers all disembarked. The train paused to change crew, the platform emptied, very few people boarded and we snuck off into the night. Crossing Lincolnshire and entering Cambridgeshire, we arrived in Peterborough a hour later. “Passengers for March should change here and catch the train behind us.”
Another hour and the Fens are traversed in darkness. I overhear a passenger across the aisle from me telling his mother how this is probably the only place he comes where there are no lights outside at night. I press my face against the glass and silently concur. These alien lands are as enigmatic as I remember them, even when you can’t seem them.
At Ely station I have to change: three minuscule cross-country trains converge around the same island platform at the same time, as the last connections of the night between Liverpool, Birmingham and Cambridge trains are made. After years of post-privatisation confusion, it’s reassuring to be on a station platform late at night, with three jovial platform attendants shouting destinations and making sure that everyone gets on the right train. One after the other, the three trains part company for their final stretches.
These trains no longer stop at my preferred station: for a long time there was no local service on the final Ely – Norwich portion of the line. So after rattling fast across the country with stops in only the big cities, these cross-country trains would be obliged to slow right down to call at remote unmanned halts with ancient names such as Shippea Hill, Lakenheath and Brandon. This was perfect for me, since the unloved and unused station at Brandon was the closest to home. Unfortunately with the introduction of slower local trains, there’s no scheduled stop here, and I have to stay on for another stop. Until, that is, we slow to a crawl in the pitch black night, and stop dead in Brandon station. There is an apologetic announcement about problems with points, and I hear the driver’s door slide open as the crew of the train get out to speak to a signal man and to likely kick a belligerent piece of rail.
Our doors remain locked, and I sit looking at the station sign. It’s a moment of peaceful contemplation. A man, on a train, unable to get out at the station, looking at the station sign.
We sit in the darkness for ten minutes or so, and then begin to crawl forward. As we edge towards the even darker night of Thetford forest, we slip past a bright yellow maintenance train, and I catch glimpses of illuminated rooms in the engineering train: a small office, a compartment full of strange equipment and a small kitchenette, with kettle and microwave.
We pick up speed, and round the final curves in the track before Thetford.