Sunday, 17 June 2012

Last Train To Newcastle

1965 saw The Monkees unleash their debut single 'The Last Train To Clarksville', a romantic song about a soldier who has to catch the train to spend one final night with his wife or girlfriend before going off on a possibly dangerous assignment. Forty-seven years later I boarded the last train to Newcastle. The romance, danger and mystique of getting onto such a train ended when the gruff guard with the North Eastern accent firmly announced:

'Those of you who don't have a valid ticket for the 2200 with the right wording and conditions will be charged the full fare. So you should leave the train now and go to the ticket office to buy a ticket.'

This was rather cruel advice, as the train left in four minutes and even a fit athlete would have had little chance of making it back in time. The thought of finding a bench in Kings Cross station was a chilling thought,  even though the new building exudes class and resembles the inside of a beehive. The management undoubtedly do not want people lurking around.

But as time went on I began to develop an unhealthy fascination in the train and even enjoy it. It was peaceful, empty and slow. It was the original 'milk train', stopping everywhere for lengthy periods at deserted stations and random spots deep in the countryside. There was no feeling of being cooped up like a chicken, fighting for your personal space with other passengers. There were few people rushing up the aisle for their microwaved bacon bun, knocking into your elbow as they went.

I was lulled into a false sense of security.

My comfort at being able to stretch out and consequent dozing was dashed by the loud rapping on the lavatory door at the end of the carriage by the gruff guard and his sidekick.

'Tickets please'.

A guilty looking youth sidled out to face the music.

'We saw you go in there, when we were coming to check tickets. Hiding,were you?

Why they always try to hide in the bogs, especially on this empty train, I do not know? The guards know most of the ruses. Gone are the days when you could evade successfully.

I was taught by an expert evader, as a child, who will remain nameless. His trick was to wait until someone went into the toilet, before knocking loudly on the door, pretending to be the guard. Nine times out of ten, the passenger would slide their ticket under the door. He would take it and walk off. He told me how to get round the ticket inspectors who waited at the terminus - he told me everything. Not that it is any good nowadays. That was in the days before barriers and CCTV.

'Lost your wallet, have you? Two days ago? Not been to the Police, eh? No crime report?' the guard muttered as he filled in a form which sounded as if it would be expensive.

The loos on this train were their usual disgusting state. Technological developments haven't yet mastered the problem of liquids swooshing all over the floor. It is consoling to see the sign: Do not use in station. I thought they had stopped letting it all loose on the tracks. It must be for the enefit of the 'milk train' and the fear of the noise waking people up.

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