Rail Journeys



Do you remember your first train trip? Me neither but this one will do to start. The (then) brand new Inter City 125 had started operations from South Wales and my father treated us to a trip to London. Super smooth or as smooth as UK train travel got or gets.

Photo Credit/s: Adam Bryant / Phil Sangwell


The trip from the north suburbs was unique in that the double decker train seemed to cut directly across lawns! The novelty – if seated on the lower deck – was of seeing a collection of feet on platforms without much thought for whose those shoes and boots belonged to. They were probably en-route to work while I had a brief respite from the horrors of comprehensive school and was soaking up every moment. The most memorable thing about this journey was of course that amazing view on taking the bend and seeing the Harbour Bridge for the first time.


The rest of the eighties would have been jaunts on the local train up to Cardiff or the other direction to Gloucester but in the early nineties the boundaries between work and travel were beginning to blur. I was checking out colleges to study my degree; Cheltenham, High Wycombe, Swindon and Maidstone to name a few. The route down to Portsmouth was interesting in that its route took in Bristol, Bath, Salisbury, Southampton and up the rather groovy ramp to P&S – and I can’t say I’ve done that on a train before …or since.


So to Charing X and the journey to Kent via Waterloo East and London Bridge. I think I may have done this a couple of times as I had two interviews at KIAD (Kent Institute of Art and Design). On the way was the run down greyness of Deptford and the many platforms of barely used stations flanking south east London and the lower Thames corridor down to the Medway towns of Strood and Rochester. Beyond lie my destination, Maidstone where I dreamt of doing my degree while listening to the Cocteau Twins on idyllic afternoons somewhere in the Kent countryside (well it is the garden of England). Unfortunately the reality was that interviews did nothing for me and the so called garden was in the grip of a dystopian nightmare vision of Britain akin to Quatermass; neglected, grafitied, the green fields I imagined seemed a long way off. So was a place at KIAD.


As a kid I had seen a show called ‘Great Railway Journeys of the World.’ One week was a trip through Scotland to Kyle of Lochalsh. While I came close to doing that very journey in 2006, this Celtic voyage remains the only time I’ve crossed Scotland by rail which in turn birthed the poem ‘Lyrical Scotland.’ Booking my ticket at Waverley the clerk says £50 dead. I pay the man. Come the day, I leave the hostel at an unearthly hour to make the 05.50 departure from Waverley. The sky once the sun appears, itself somewhat miraculous in this most creative of northern lands, is bright blue all the way to the west coast and Prestwick. It is only when the peninsular on which Stranraer stands that the familiar white of the British isle regains control as the train rolls out to the pier and ferry onwards to Belfast. There a wait of two hours which feels much longer is ended by the arrival of the very fine train for the final leg down to Dublin. The Irish sea bathed in cool grey, the sky the same, now seen from its namesake nation. On this stretch one last burst of Celtic magic is realised when the train seemingly runs through the middle of the lake at Malahide.


In Bohemia the train is slow (I think I mention all this and the Italian journeys below in my Nomad book) so here’s a passage from it…

The dirty station greeted me and the train; a relic from bygone times. One such as seen on Agatha Christie tales with compartments only with the newspapers missing. A Czech girl sat opposite reading Miller’s Sexus. Silence spoke. A little late we pulled out on a five hour trek to Vienna (Wien). The Czech Republic is quite unique in that it’s one of the few places trains are cheaper than the bus. The reason? Buses are faster!

The view featured: Corrugated roofs, pipelines, buildings in need of serious plastering, junk-yards or things that resemble such, factories, and a high ratio of unemployed graffiti artists. Surely the Czech government could employ some of them to add colour to the grey.

Midway, patches of snow appeared on the ground and fog lined the valleys as the land fell away, leaving the train to amble over bridges that straddle the gaping voids. Approaching Austria, their conductor took over then a couple of stations down, their police. Exactly as I’d envisaged. Like something out of a spy caper, they asked not for my papers but my passport. I gladly handed it over. Again the moment was soured, no stamp. Everything got a lot neater after the border. A homage to German influence no doubt. For some reason the trains from the north land at Sudbahnoff (Wien south). 


Also from Nomad…

Rattling through the night (probably all tunnels anyway) I attempted sleep. Rest is perhaps better word usage. Taking off my shoes not made for walking to soothe my feet, I ponder how many miles I’ve notched up over 30 years of trotting around the planet. Speaking of tunnels Genova’s two stations are linked by the most tedious one; slow and long it reminded me of Celine’s ‘Journey to the end of the Night,’ possibly readable cover to cover in the time it took end to end. After an hour at Genova came the light over a serene Mediterranean.

Ventimiglia (Italy’s border town) unleashed a tremor of shock. In Rome the departure board read DIRECTO. The conductor enters my compartment. Stiff from a night on the makeshift seat/bed he points to my shoes and says “Everybody off.” Springing from relative slumber, I haggle with my shoes grab the pack and jump.

Waiting for the train in the slightly brisk morning surprisingly many people were up and about on the shoreline fishing or just waiting for first light.

The gleaming Voyager la Region slid into view without a sound. Climbing upstairs, I wonder if this is first class and I’m going to be busted. Setting forth, it’s a world away from the Italian trains. Whilst their Eurostar would equal this, the ones I’d taken were standard, all rattle class. Here I couldn’t even here the rails.


In Switzerland the trains run like clockwork. They are also bloody expensive! Nonetheless I ended up on one leaving pretty though lack lustre Geneva, heading east past Lucerne and Vevey (Nestle ville) to Montreux which I remembered for its legendary Pop/Rock festival in the eighties. I think nowadays they only do the more refined jazz one (i.e no riff raff).


Another job interview in a far away place and so to Bristol Parkway (not really Bristol at all) and Virgin trains. ‘Take this one and change at Brum’ says the guard on the platform. Hmm, ok then. And I was off on this unusual adventure which took me through Crewe and the Lake District. Not long after the Scottish border Lockerbie (scene of the horrific Pan Am crash in 1988) cruised by in the blink of an eye.  *photos in reverse order i.e. starting with Glasgow.


Passage from Year Amid Winter…

I caught my first Auckland train into town from the all new Glen Eden station, and thankfully a return ticket costs twice as much as a single not 10p difference as par the UK. I was excited as a youngster on a train for the first time as the sky tower swung into view and finally pulled into the architectural splendour of the underground Britomart – presently as funky as New Zealand gets (as there is no tube or metro) with its coloured lights and shiny hanging spheres.

Public transport is often a bone of contention with Aucklander’s who see their cities infrastructure as inadequate considering its sprawling size; reportedly twice that of London. However a recent slew of development has seen most of the train station’s rebuilt with new signage (which strangely omits the Maori language). On alighting at Britomart, I first studied the station interior and smile at the absence of ticket barriers.

Photo Credit: James Pole (train picture)


Also in Auckland is the fabulous Newmarket station which is also reached from Britomart.

Photo Credit: Unknown

ISTANBUL YENIKAPI – YESILKOY (near Ataturk airport), 2011

Well this was an experience, having escaped the dodgy guy with yellow rotting teeth who wanted some sort of payment for showing me where the train station was I waited on the platform in the hope the train would make an appearance sooner rather than later. Fortunately it did but this thing really was a groovy train, jittering all over the place. It would have felt a lot safer had Turkish railways or whomever operated it remembered to attach doors! Istanbul’s public transport is (or was at the time) somewhat disjointed with metro, trams and funiculars. I believe things have improved since.


As shown recently on my Five Years in a Kingdom of Red blog (link below) this was my introduction to China. Now you can do it a whole lot quicker but at great expense.

Passage from House of Many Faces (book in progress)…

The train is more pokey than I imagine and the top bunk has little room to manoeuvre for me alone never mind any baggage. This is the beginning of many steep learning curves China would throw at me. My compartment mates are two Chinese Americans who are also the first of many to exude a generosity that my fellow countrymen can only dream of. Most of the trains inhabitants carry the kind of cheap pot noodles in round cartons that back in the UK you assume the Chinese wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, so it’s an eye opener to see they do embrace them with great abundance. There is some hot water in a silver furnace and a small table with three beds on either side; a bottom bunk – the most expensive, the middle one and mine, the top, the cheapest and most difficult to get into. I am near the ceiling and have trouble bending my body to place my bags which are being passed up to me by one of the others. 

There is no info on the train as to our location or the route we will take. I ask several times if the buildings outside are neighbouring Shenzhen but am told “no, still Hong Kong, China is big” they say. I can only agree as I expected HK to be a blip but it’s still going by outside a good 45 minutes into the journey. We do stop in Shenzhen but there’s not much to see before nightfall and the vast array of neon that calls Guangzhou home. It too stretches some considerable distance. A huge five storey plus building turns out to be nothing more than a fish restaurant and the night I spend trying to sleep is lost to periodic glimpses of villages outside with the excitement of a child at Christmas not quite believing that it’s the real China before me. 

Several big towns with towering apartment blocks come and go but it’s anyone’s guess what they are called. It is too early for them to be Beijing so that when the capital does appear I almost expect it to be somewhere else. The train has swung east a while back so I know the buildings in the distance could be it and after a few moments my Chinese co-travellers confirm it is indeed the outskirts. The brilliant blue of the day has become a hazy pink afternoon sky as we skirt the final stretch into Beijing West.



This was probably one of my best travel moments yet and sadly because of reasons mentioned below no photo evidence.

Passage from House of Many Faces (book in progress)…

This train was not just another T train, it was a migrant train and this time I really did have a seat and nothing else. The station has not even lit up the gate with the train number so when the procession begins I have to ask hurriedly if this is the right crowd I’m moving with. It is and it’s leading to one of the most extraordinary events in my years of travelling so far. I get to my carriage to find the baggage stows above are taken. The table before me will have to do as the ramshackle train is packed. I am not sure what to make of this scenario and place my head on my bag to feign some sleep but can’t. I glance up to see Shanghai’s suburbs still rolling past. It seems I am the only westerner aboard. When I ask the conductor how many stations we will pass through (with the aid of my phrasebook) I spy a comical scene where everyone is peering over their seats to see who the English speaker is. It is strange yet again the Chinese are hugely warm and generous making vast efforts to communicate via their phone dictionaries. One guy on the opposite side of the carriage smiles and approaches me with “Hi, where you from, maybe we can be friend with me.” It is one of a series of how beguiling the Chinese are. I tell him Wales, incredibly my phrasebook does have a listing for Wales but not Sugar! Having learnt from my previous jaunt through China I’ve bought sandwiches, nuts and tea with me. The Chinese have their pot noodles out in force. The two guys adjacent to me are the kind of archetypal Chinese migrant worker you might imagine. They are older gents, have very few teeth and watch porn on their phones. In the tangled chaos of people, luggage and the train’s shuffling movement getting to and from a toilet was a mission. When I got to one I had to wait for it to become free, then I had to brace myself for what might be waiting to assault my senses when it did. Normally a squat affair which is sobering to me as a male never mind a woman traveller. One of them is flooded with piss and the other adjacent loo has an equally wet floor I hoped from water not urine yet I doubt it, this was wishful thinking that really was a China Crisis! Nope, the second loo is home to the alternative option of a steaming turd which has been fired by its previous owner only to miss the hole of the squat and lies festering on the surrounding porcelain. Either way the toilets on these trains are not for the queasy. 

Somewhere in the night, we have stopped and there is a mad dash to either leave the train, get onto the train and those seeking nourishment. Steaming pre-packed Chicken drumsticks are being handed through the windows from the platform. My friend has bought me one despite my best intentions to avoid the imagery of the last steaming item that encroached my vision. I try and eat it (the chicken) but it’s tough as leather boots. He leaves me at 2am for a freezing platform God knows where to be replaced by a guy who can speak English. He too is going to Shenzhen so will provide necessary chit chat for the remainder of the journey. He asks why I didn’t fly to which I sheepishly reply that I couldn’t afford to. I am living off 5000RMB made from my stint in Beijing. It turns out that while the migrant train was no five star deluxe it was an experience that enabled me more than ever to get by in circumstances unknown to me. The pygmy tribes of Borneo and the Incas of the lost temples of Peru were now in sight. 

Approaching Shenzhen I am somewhat surprised that this modern metropolis and most wealthy city in China has some of the most shabby looking buildings I’ve seen so far. It seems the way of any train journey that trawling through the least desirable suburb is a pre-requisite of railway design.


And up to date with the very recent past…


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