A year of trainhopping – exploring Britain by rail

Posted: May 19, 2017 in Rail, Transport
SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Bristol Parkway is a pretty soulless place, devoid of any character or interest. It is one of Britain’s most modern railway creations, which developed from being a couple of platforms and a car park in a field in South Gloucestershire to an important rail interchange. The construction of everything on the site gives the impression that any architects involved tried to build the most features with the smallest amount of money. Everything looks lightweight and tinny. It’s no place to be stranded to change trains – there’s nothing there – and yet that’s exactly what it was meant to be.

And yet it was here that something clicked. I’ve always enjoyed travelling by train. It was always a novelty – we don’t have a railway in our village as it was a Beeching casualty, so when I was a child, to go on the train down to Cardiff for a shopping trip was a Big Deal. We’d get on the Rail Link bus (a victim of austerity cuts) over to the next valley, to Ystrad Rhondda, where we’d have a short wait before a Sprinter would appear from around the corner, in the distinctive Regional Railways blue. The journey to Cardiff isn’t particularly interesting – a succession of valleys stations before reaching the suburbs of the city – but to a five-year-old, any train journey is fascinating, and of course when you do the same journey over and over again, just like young children like, you begin to recognise the features that tell you “you’re nearly there”.

Usually we’d get off at Queen Street, the smaller of Cardiff’s two stations, with its basic 1960s brick station building (recently expanded). We’d make our way down the main shopping streets at Cardiff. We always visited the model shop Beatties, opposite Cardiff Castle, where I could gaze longingly at the Hornby and Scalextric models for a while. We would go into the Capitol Centre, down Queen Street and the Hayes to David Morgan, and reach Toys-R-Us – more model trains there too! And then there was the great excitement – getting back on the train, often at Cardiff Central, where I could catch a glimpse of the Big Trains on the main line.

There were other trips I can remember too. Sometimes we carried on past Cardiff down to Barry Island for a day at the seaside, where an old loco was parked on the sea front for years under a little shelter – this engine, GWR tank engine 5538, is now undergoing restoration. But gradually as I spent more weekends watching football in Devon, the travelling stopped. There were lots of rides on steam railways, sure, but I can’t remember many journeys on the Big Railway, aside from rare big days out. The idea of travelling by train as a routine was alien to me. I’d see railways in other parts of the country in books or occasional journeys and they just seemed exotic to me – at this point, I don’t think I’d ever actually been on an electric train, with the exception of one trip on the Underground.

It wasn’t until I went to university that I started to get the bug for travelling alone – and even then, it wasn’t until my third year there, when I was living next to a railways station, that I actually started. I went to London and explored the big termini for the first time. I went to Birmingham and Cheltenham. I went to Machynlleth on the Cambrian line. It was great fun, and I gradually started to build up my self-confidence.

The problem is, travelling by train here is ridiculously expensive, and when you’re at a campus uni, surrounded by a growing number of friends, it’s hard to justify the cost when you can have fun for very little money. I spent most of my Saturdays doing student radio, which I loved, but that meant I lost my spare time very easily.

A year ago, though, things started to change. After three years of struggle, I decided to pack in my PhD, at least temporarily, and apply for jobs. I took a bit of a scattergun approach to applying, and suddenly I found myself travelling around – once with only 24 hours notice of an interview! I also had to head back to Wales, and then back again to Leamington where I was living. Until this point, during my entire seven years at uni, I’d relied on my dad for travelling to and from home. Now I was having to travel during the week, and for the first time, this meant travelling by train.

My first journey from Leamington to Wales was last August. Luckily my dad was working in Newport, so it only meant the one change of train in Birmingham. It was a route I’d never done before, the attractive line along the Severn Estuary via Gloucester and Chepstow. However, it was on a two-coach Class 170, full of people and/or seat reservations. For heading back, I realised that with my open return ticket, I could probably go back a different way – instead of via Chepstow, I could catch an eastbound InterCity 125 to Bristol Parkway, and change there onto a northbound CrossCountry. If I timed it right, I could meet the rare northbound CrossCountry 125 service, with a lot more seats than a pokey little 170. It was ticking off another route, the journey time would be pretty much the same, despite being less direct.

And so it was when I was sat on Bristol Parkway station that I decided I quite liked this way of exploring the rail network. It just so happens that I was heading back to Leamington so I could travel from there up to Leeds for an interview with Northern. I travelled up direct on the CrossCountry service, and came back via my first ride on a East Coast InterCity 225 as far as Doncaster. It felt like I was gradually ticking off an item one by one on my railway bucket list, riding on lines and trains I never thought I would, to places that were just names on a map – I was just a little lad from South Wales, so Leeds might as well have been in Norway to me.

Everything changed when I was offered a job by Northern. The amazing perk of working on the railways as a rail enthusiast and explorer is that you get free travel on all your train operating company’s services, and those of sister TOCs. Northern is owned by Arriva, so I get free travel on CrossCountry, Arriva Trains Wales, Chiltern and Grand Central services, as well as the Tyne and Wear Metro and Merseyrail. This covers pretty much the entire country, as Arriva run services from Aberdeen to Penzance. We also get 75% off rail fares on every other TOC.

When I moved to York, I was starting from scratch. I was (and still am) single. My close friends all lived elsewhere. I had no obligations holding me down. This was my opportunity to make something of my situation. In the past, I may have been too timid or anxious, but I was determined that I wasn’t going to fall into a trap of sitting at home every weekend, tapping away on my laptop, doing nothing in particular and feeling miserable about it. So as soon as I received my travel pass, I decided to set myself a challenge – travel on every line Northern runs trains on over the course of my contract.

Since then, I’ve spent on average a day a week travelling around the network. I’ve visited most of the major places we serve, the vast majority of which I’d never visited before. I’ve used it to travel home, and then travelled in Wales. I’ve travelled in Cornwall and Scotland. Virtually every weekend, you will have found me on a train heading somewhere, probably my third or fourth of the day as I hop from train to train to get round. I’ll be taking pictures along the way too; the photo here was one I took on Sunday at lovely Saltaire, a World Heritage Site full of beautiful old industrial buildings in Shipley.

I’m most of the way through ticking off all the lines on our network map, and I’ve been further afield too; tomorrow (Saturday), I’m off to London, to do HS1 and the loop around Kent, a part of the country I’ve only ever passed through to get to and from France 11 years ago. On Sunday, I’m in Newcastle, doing what I never thought I would do – working in a customer-facing role!

As much as anything, I want to stay working in the rail industry so I can keep the fantastic luxury that is my travel pass. Not only has it allowed me to see a lot more of this country than I ever have previously, but it’s also saved me from being bored, isolated, anxious and overweight, in a pokey flat with a terrible internet connection. The truth is that even if I lose the free travel, I should probably keep travelling anyway. It’s expensive here in the UK, but I’ve realised that it has given me so much confidence and so many experiences. Can you put a price on that?

I’m particularly inspired by Geoff Marshall and Vicki Pipe, filming their journey around the country visiting or passing through every single station on the network. Their videos have given me renewed energy to travel more, after a few weeks of feeling fatigued after busy weeks at work. When the alternative is being stuck at home alone, it’s important to get out and see different things, to be stimulated, to be pushed out of your comfort zone a little, and just to get some nice fresh air – even if it’s slightly diesel-flavoured.

Back when I was at Bristol Parkway, I thought about writing about it – it’s not an interesting place, and yet that in and of itself was intriguing to me. But I’d never got round to writing the article I wanted to write about it until now. I’ve only written once about my travels, which is a shame as I feel like this is something I should start documenting them more. The North is an incredible place to travel around and see, and our railways range from the quirky to the spectacular. But I’m also going to start moving beyond the North more while I can – given that I’ve done most of the Northern network there’s not much more that’s new to see here, so I want to keep pushing the boundaries. Beeching may have savaged the British railway network, but it’s still huge, diverse and always changing. There’s still plenty more frontiers for me to explore – and once I’ve explored them, I’ll explore them again.

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