All Aboard! 

Why Letting The Train Take The Strain Makes All The Difference

I love trains! There, I've said it. Because I do. Oh, I'm not one of those types who stand at the end of the platform jotting down numbers and taking photographs of every random train that passes by. Because I'm not really interested in the trains themselves. Or in collecting numbers. Far too ordered for me. But travelling by train? I love it! Simply can't get enough of it. 

I have to admit, at this point, to a sneaking little love affair with steam trains. And no, I'm not old enough to have travelled on them for real, not quite anyway, but I have visited a few heritage railways. There's something remarkably relaxing about sitting on a lovely old steam train as it trundles along the Churnet Valley or the Shakespeare Line. And I have to admit feeling a certain kinship with those old engines. And before you suggest it's something about having a 'tender behind', it's actually because all that puffing and wheezing sounds the way I do when my asthma plays up. But really, it's the whole romanticism that pulls me in and it's not hard to see why trains, in those days gone by, had a completely different image than they do today. But, given just a little imagination, anyone can get a real treat out of a trip by train. I really can't understand why more people don't leave their cars in the drive (does anyone actually use a garage to keep a car in?), and hop on the train. Particularly when you have a long distance to travel. I'm not a big fan of motorways at the best of times. They are invariably busy, or blocked, or bumpy. And you get too many idiots using them. One of the reasons I've never learned to drive was not that I doubted my ability to master the skill, but because I doubted the ability of about 50 per cent of the other people. But seriously, where's the fun in negotiating a five-mile tailback? Or breaking down? Twice I've been in vehicles that have broken down on the motorway in the dead of night. Clinging to the grassy bank, using only the light of a cellphone to navigate your way around the thistles and nettles while waiting for your 'rescue' is not my idea of a great evening out. And nor is losing a shoe down a rabbit hole. Ever wondered why you see single shoes scattered on the verge at the side of the motorway? Because the other one has disappeared down  a rabbit hole!

Remnants of Britain's old railway history is everywhere you look 

I'm not saying that trains don't encounter difficulties. Of course they do. From 'leaves on the line' to 'the wrong kind of snow', the British railways have, at times, become a bit of a joke when it comes to time-keeping, but it's gotten much better. Of course, trains and railways can break down.I once spent three hours on an over-filled train waiting on a train 'parked' alongside a very boring field while signals somewhere outside Bedford were mended. It was the middle of a heatwave, and because the train was at a standstill the air conditioning was turned off. The buffet car ran out of drinks and the driver had to turn off the lights. As we sat there in the increasing gloom, I did curse the railways and vow I would never again set foot on a train.  But when we did get underway once more, everything was fine. And when we arrived back home, there was a letter of apology and a form to get a full refund handed to us as we stepped on the platform. When did you get that for a traffic jam? 

And there are simply loads of reasons why travelling by train is so much better. To begin with, you can look out of the window and enjoy the countryside. If you're the driver of a car, you can't really do that, now can you? 


And our railway lines take you right into the countryside, in a way that no motorway ever could. Often right to the edge of a field.  Past farms and villages, through towns and cities, over rivers and roads, under hills and across valleys. You can get up and stretch your legs whenever you choose. On a practical note, you can use a loo without having to break your journey to get to a services station. You can eat and drink, read or even go online. All of which are pretty difficult to do in a car, even if you're only a passenger.

I've had so many enjoyable railway journeys. From childhood trips to the seaside to quick nips down to the capital for meetings, there's always something to see. Granted, it's not always pretty. After all, much of the system was built to enable industry to get raw materials to the factories and send finished goods to the markets so lines travel through some of the most heavily industrialised parts of the country. But those lines also traverse and connect some of the most historically significant places too. 

When I was little and we used to go to Bournemouth or Great Yarmouth on holiday, we always travelled by rail. And, along with the 'Twinkle' Summer Special, my parents would always buy me an I-Spy book for the journey.

Granted, not many trains are as elegant as this … 

I'd sit there, happily spying things out of the window and ticking them off in the book. Always in pencil, thanks to my ever-frugal mum, so that I could use the book again the next time. On the way back home, I'd have to write down the name of every station through which we passed. Perhaps it was being an only child, or just that I'm a tad geeky, but I loved it. And it got me used to looking out of the window. And looking around me. And noticing the fascinating world that sits just outside the window and which changes constantly.

Whatever you think, travelling by train is undeniably romantic. Okay, sometimes you have to put up with some dusty old trains and some dreary old stations. But, by and large, trains are now spotless and old stations like St Pancras and Bristol Temple Meads restored to glorious stature.

And why else would there have been hundreds of songs written about trains? Why would poets, like Sir John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, W H Auden and even Robert Louis Stevenson have written about them? Or Edith Nesbit, Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie set fiction around them?

Our railways aren't perfect, of course. Reserve a specific seat  and you'll doubtless have to shift the person sitting there. But that's down to the nature of our fellow passengers, not the railway system. We could do with more carriages and more luggage storage at busy times. But railway stations are improving. They're getting cleaner and posher and more and more airy. With the exception of Birmingham New Street that is. Because there the designers were convinced that a full-on cardio workout (carrying a suitcase up the stairs, towards what seems like the world's most distant departures board, along to the new platform which is probably back where you started, and back down the stairs again is just what a train passenger wants.

But, when you consider the scale of our railway system, these are pretty minor issues, that could easily be resolved. And the way I see it, there are really only two major disadvantages of rail travel.

The potential for delays is one. Changing trains can be a nightmare if you get delayed. Ten minutes here or there and you can miss a vital connection. Pricing structures and the rules defining the different offers mean it's not always as simple as hopping on the next available service. It's something the powers that be really should sort out.

But the thing that puts most people off using the trains is the cost. Because it simply can't be right that it's cheaper to fly to Edinburgh than it is to travel by train. You can work around the high prices, of course, but it takes a really determined traveller to weed out the pricing loopholes. Want to travel mid-week? Better stay away from the times commuter's might want to travel. And don't even think about going to, say, London during school holidays. Or make a last-minute booking. Better to travel off-season and off-peak, and plan well ahead if you don't want to spend a fortune. Of course, it you don't want to travel to a tourist hot-spot prices are more reasonable and don't always relate to how far away your destination stands. Which is silly. But there are plenty of interesting places at the end of fascinating rail journeys that don't feature in all the guidebooks. Over the years, through following sport, I've visited many places that you might not think of visiting. All of them are interesting. Most of them at the end of pleasant journeys. And some I've wanted to go back to time after time. 

So the next time you need to go somewhere, or even just fancy a day out, why not find out if you can get there by train? But when you get in the cab, or on the bus, at the start of your journey please don't ask for the 'train station'. I know it's a term you'll see everywhere from bus destination boards to timetables to the BBC, and it seems harmless enough, but please don't. It's one of my dad's biggest bugbears, ("Train? What kind of train? Camel train?") and I'll never hear the end of it …