Ghost story?

My recent journeys, to and from the land to our immediate north, brought to mind a ghost story I once heard (OK, just made up following a malapropism).

They do say that a phantom passenger train haunts the east coast main line.  It is doomed to traverse the line for all eternity, never able to reach the final station stop for its service.  The curse has been active for some time, so it is a steam-hauled service – and unaffected by signal aspect or overhead line damage it makes very good time.

This ghostly train is known as The Flying Scotsman.  I feel it needs the Richard Wagner de nos jour to take the story and use it as the basis for an overlong opera – though preferably one without the dodgy politics that mar Herr W’s work for so many.  If there are any budding composers (yes, composers reproduce asexually) of heavy opera (opera with an extra neutron or two), might I suggest the wind section could contribute a ghostly whistle as a leitmotif for the train itself?

In related news, if you ever get a chance to hear Paul Hindemith’s “Overture on ‘The Flying Dutchman'” then please do so – it’s a hoot!  In my view, the Comedy Prom missed rather an open goal by not including it, but there’s always next year… (or so I aver, with absolutely no proof).

The only way to fly

Is, to paraphrase Westlife (you may like to imagine me standing up from a high stool at this point), without wings.  I am not suggesting that I possess some gravity-cancelling gizmo, but would merely posit that it is far better, to quote a marketing message from years gone by, to let the train take the strain.

Earlier in the week, I made the journey from Fish Towers to the Scottish capital city and seat of government, Edinburgh.  Living close to Stansted, with a little planning I could no doubt have flown very cheaply – or at least, apparently very cheaply, before the cost of such optional extras as check-in, luggage, actually paying for the flight, engines on the plane, a pilot etc were mysteriously added to the cost of my journey.  Instead, by using a considerably greater amount of planning and a detailed knowledge of the vagaries of UK rail ticketing (a subject which could probably form the basis of a rather challenging degree course), I was able to make the journey using the railways at a fairly reasonable cost.

In fact, I was able to make the journey in the relatively sumptuous surroundings of a First Class carriage.  For most of the trip, this upgrade allowed me improved legroom and a more comfortable and reclinable chair.  However, from Peterborough there was another – to me, entirely unexpected – bonus.

The East Coast Main Line has been through a degree of upheaval in recent years, and I believe is effectively nationalised at the moment.  As part of its move back (albeit briefly) into State ownership, the exterior of the rolling stock is being re-painted in the most hideous livery yet attempted on our liberalised railways.  The new paint-job has a pale silvery-grey background with a horizontal stripe and writing in the shade of purple normally only associated with an alcoholic’s nose.  I can only hope that this paint was going very cheap, perhaps left-over from some earlier government project, rather than that we (either the taxpayers or rail users) are paying good money for it.  Or perhaps, after all these years, every pleasing colour-combination has already been used and companies are having to use increasingly outré chromatic combinations from the furthest reaches of the Dulux colour-card.

In addition, the East Cost line recently garnered publicity (of a not entirely positive nature) when it discontinued the restaurant car service on its trains.  As a result, my hopes for snacking on the train were not high – and I had even gone so far as to prepare a packed lunch before leaving home.  How wrong I was!  Within 5 minutes of sitting down, I had already been offered a glass of orange juice and a danish pastry (an offer I was all to happy to accept).  For the rest of my journey, barely 15 minutes passed where I wasn’t provided with some new comestible item, or a beverage to ease their passage through my digestive tract.  Even better, all of this nourishment was complimentary – included within the modest cost of my ticket.  Even I, a man often accused of harbouring a tapeworm, could not have asked for more food – and that is not a sentence I get to use very often! The contrast with the offerings of our soi-disant low-cost airlines was striking.

One of the other great joys of rail travel, when I can tear my attention away from my stomach and its provisioning, is to stare out of the windows and watch the British countryside roll past.  Whilst the eastern side of the UK is not, perhaps, known for its exciting scenery – there are no great mountain ranges, canyons or cataracts – you do get to see a range of UK electricity generation facilities, cross four major rivers beginning with the letter ‘T’ and to see the sea.  As a result, I can confirm that Great Britain remains a green (and gold, at this time of the year) and pleasant land – if rather well stocked with rosebay willowherb (a plant I can only assume was introduced from North America given the fact that it has four – count ’em – four first names!).

After a slight platform shortage at York station – a place I had always considered to be very generously provided with train parking – my train ran a little late and we finally arrived into Waverley (you’ll have had your tea) some 3 minutes after the timetable suggested.  The level of apology this occasioned was extraordinary – as was the assistance to ensure that no-one missed their relatively tight onward connection to Inverness. Again, the contrast with the airlines was palpable – these never mention lateness at all, but boast to the heavens if the plane lands on time (or even early).  This boasting is despite the minutes (often tens of minutes) of taxiing that follows landing before one can disembark – and the fact that you then have a serious hike to escape the airport and a further, often extended, journey into the city which is your destination.  With my train, on the other hand, the instant we ‘arrived’ we had actually arrived and I could climb down into the heart of Auld Reekie.

Why would you travel any other way?  Truly (as I may have said before), if the Good Lord had meant us to fly he wouldn’t have given us the railways!