Opinion

Soggy sandwiches, cold tea and sooty trains - the nostalgia of the old railways

Big Issue seller Robin Price writes about the privatisation of the railways as he looks back with nostalgia on the sooty train journeys of his childhood.

Robin longs for the days when the Flying Scotsman ran non-stop from Edinburgh to London. Photo: Heidi Burton ABIPP

I come from a railway family and within three weeks of being born I was going around the network with my dad in my little carrycot. My dad used to be a guard and then he was a driver, so I was kind of brought up on the railways.

When we were kids living in Bristol, if we wanted to see something different we’d go somewhere like Birmingham New Street. That was the place to be on a Saturday.

You’d see all the electric trains up from Euston going to Manchester, Liverpool and Preston. And you’d see the cross-country trains. There are a couple of sidings in the middle of the platforms and back in the day they used to be lined up with locomotives waiting to go on their respective trains. It was very, very busy.

We also used to go up to Scotland to see my step-granny. When we got to Glasgow and saw the orange trains it was like a totally different world. Especially that Clockwork Orange [the Glasgow underground]. I went on it a few times and it just did my nut in.

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We couldn’t live without the railways in this country. People don’t see it as a luxury any more – they just see it as something that gets you from A to B. That does bug me a little bit. But, to be fair, look at the state of the trains. They all look exactly the same now. There’s no character to them. They’ve all got a sloping front. They’ve all got sliding doors and they all talk to you!

Modern trains lack character, says Robin. Photo: 2021 Nathan Stirk

But back in the day it was a real luxury. You’d have a meal and see the Cornish Riviera or go on the Flying Scotsman. Nowadays people just get on, sit down and read their paper. They don’t take any interest in what’s outside the window or what they’re travelling on. Like my brother says, it’s not just about the train.

Look around you some time. Look at the infrastructure that’s holding it all up. Look at all the signals and the rails and the wires and the bridges and the bricks. You’ve only got to look at Glasgow Central Station – it’s magnificent.

Even when I was a kid I used to get off the train and it would take my breath away.

The railways should never have been privatised. My dad was brought up with British Rail, and so was I. Soggy sandwiches, cold tea, horrible trains – filthy and pumping out black smoke. But I tell you what: we trainspotters were absolutely loving it. You’d go home smelling of diesel at the end of the day.

Privatisation was brought in so companies could supposedly compete against each other and you’d get cheaper fares but if only a few operators have got all the companies, how is that privatisation? How is it giving everybody a fair chance?

‘You’re just the same as me and I’m just the same as the next person down the line’

If it was up to me I’d nationalise it again. But I would make sure there were certain people looking after it. I mean people who are actually interested in the railways, not people who’ve just come in off the street. If you didn’t know anything about the railways you wouldn’t be working for me.

Everybody would start at the bottom and work their way up so you actually know every single department. So when you get to be a driver and you’re going, oh, bloody platform staff are holding us up – well at least you’ll know how it feels because you were platform staff at one stage.

That’s the way I look at it – you’re giving everybody an equal break. You’re just the same as me and I’m just the same as the next person down the line. We’re here to do a job, make some money and make sure this railway runs safely.

What the railways need in future is HS2. I look at it this way – if it was a brand-new road nobody would be moaning about it. A load of it’s going to be in tunnels anyway, so not a lot of people are going to see it. So what’s the gripe?

UNITED KINGDOM – JANUARY 20: This class A3, number 65, ‘Knight of Thistle’ locomotive was built for the London and North Eastern Railway. It was used on the Flying Scotsman service. Photo: SSPL/National Railway Museum

It will cut journey times down for the average businessperson. That’s what it’s going to be all about, competing with air travel to places like Manchester. Those little city jets will go because the airlines won’t be able to compete.

One 4,000-tonne Foster Yeoman train would take 200 lorries off the road. If I owned land and somebody said they wanted to build HS2, I’d say you can have all the land you want as long as you build me a Track and ruin viewing gallery.

Robin Price sells the Big Issue outside The Coffee House, Weston-super-Mare.

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