One thing that would improve my life immeasurably would be a train set. Preferably, the train set I have in the loft, unused for 50 years. A double tracked layout with a siding in the middle. I had three steam locomotives, including Sir Nigel Gresley, a brother of the record-breaking Mallard, and plenty of rolling stock, from carriages to goods wagons. As a child, I would spend the entire evening watching the trains go around. I could easily do that today.
My dad bought me the train set back in the mid 1960s. He put it on a hard board base for me and, over the years, I saved up to buy a small tunnel and some semaphore signals and as the trains went by, I’d get low to the ground to watch the trains enter and leave the tunnel. Boring? It was the most exciting time of my life.
I didn’t tell anyone about it. I was worried by what others might say. I don’t know what the equivalent terms were back in the day for ‘anorak’ or ‘geek’ but neither would have done me any favours at junior school had the ‘hard nuts’ known about it. It was bad enough with my increasingly curly hair and the ringlets that appeared when it was raining. I kept it all to myself.
Even today, I go to places to watch trains, real trains and model trains. In Rotterdam, as a youngish boy, I’d spend hours watching the trams in the Goudesingel and the trains thundering past Station Blaak, above the open air market. My mum would find somewhere for me to sit by the Hofplein roundabout whilst she went shopping in the Lijnbaan. Trams would trundle by from four directions and soon I would work out the direction in which they’d leave the roundabout. I didn’t want anything else. Today, give me a camping chair and stick me by the roundabout and fetch me when the sun is about to go down. Or just bring me a thick coat.
These days, I dream of a garden railway which I don’t have the ability, patience or, in fact, the money to create and I suspect my 1960s set won’t work anymore. Instead, I drive to Pilning Station and watch the trains go by. The Hitachi expresses to London and South Wales, the veteran HSTs, the Sprinters and, if my luck is really in, some goods traffic. As with my train set, I only want me to be there. If someone else is on the platform, it’s time to go as soon as I arrive. Wherever I go, I always want to see the trains.
The trains in Britain are not as exciting to look at as they used to be. I grew up watching diesel locomotive hauled trains. I didn’t take the numbers but I loved to watch them. There were various types and if I went to Temple Meads station and bought a platform ticket (yes – you actually could pay to stand on the platform to watch trains!), I’d see everything I wanted to see. And I would rush back to my friends and make absolutely sure I didn’t mention a thing about it. What would you think of some simpleton hippy informing you he’d seen a Class 52 Western AND a Hymek? Not, I suspect, very much.
Even, as recently as last year in Split, I passed up the chance to visit the Diocletian Palace in order to watch a few dreary trains at the railway station. This obsession isn’t going away.
Trains, I think, are my comfort blanket. I am almost always alone when I am watching the trains go by. No one else, I fear, is sad enough to come with me anyway.
Most evenings, I spent an hour or so looking at live webcams of trains in places like Crewe station. It takes me away to a better world where I am on my own, I’m safe and I can watch trains go by. Sad? Probably, but this is my life. Only a train set – a big, proper train set – will do now. It will never happen, but in my dreams I’m watching a Deltic locomotive powering past, diving into the tunnel on the bend, and I am where I want to be.
I’m not very good at anything – not even taking the numbers of trains – but I am an expert at watching them go by. What a skill set that is.