There’s plenty of leg room, but few passengers and definitely no sign of a buffet car. Sarah Freeman reports on the curious case of Britain’s ghost trains.
A little while ago, Michael Williams found himself at the ticket office at Leeds station. He wanted to buy a direct day return to Goole, but the man behind the desk wasn’t sure it was even possible. When Williams asked whether there was a problem, the man behind the desk, replied simply, “There’s only one train a day...and sometimes it doesn’t come back.”
“The 17.16 to Goole has a special status as one of Britain’s ghost trains,” says Williams, who writes about his slightly ill-fated journey east from Leeds in his new book The Trains Now Departed. “These ethereal services wend their eerie way around the rail network almost entirely unknown to the travelling public and running mostly empty since they operate at deliberately inconvenient times, often giving passengers no prospect of getting home again.”
But why? Surely it would be better to axe services like the single train which trundles along the Pontefract line from Leeds to Goole? After all they cater for no one in particular and often make it impossible to complete a return journey within 24 hours. Well, perhaps, but according to Williams the decision to keep these ghost services running is, like so much else, political.
“They help maintain the fiction that a railway line is still open for business when in reality it has been abandoned,” says Williams. “For the price of an occasional train service with some clapped out carriages, the train operators are able to duck the long and costly consultation, accompanied by inevitable howls of public protest.
“It’s why ghost trains are sometimes known as parliamentary or parly trains - they supply the bare minimum service required by statute without having to bother with a closure process.”
Williams met just one other passenger on his journey from Leeds - Brian, a retired teacher from Halifax and railway enthusiast with a special interest in the ghost trains.
“He told me there used to be a good service on the line until not so long ago, but then in 2001 the train company Arriva replaced all the services between Leeds, Wakefield, Castleford, Knottingley and Goole with buses. They claimed they were short of drivers and trains. He said by the time they brought back the Goole train six months later, it was the perfect excuse to turn it into a ghost service. And it’s been the same every since.”
The Leeds to Goole service is by far from Britain’s only ghost train. There’s the Stalybridge Flyer which leaves Stockport at 9.22am on Fridays, travels the short hop around the south of Manchester and never returns. Rarer still is the service which runs between Frodsham and Runcorn near Liverpool, which boasts just one train a week and then only in summer.
When Williams rang Northern Rail to enquire about the skeleton service on the Knottingley line he innocently asked whether if they ran more trains it might encourage more people to use them. He was told that they were simply following the service level specified by the Department of Transport. “In the old days of nationalisation British Railways were only too happy to put the closure notices up,” he says. “However, since privatisation the railways have been controlled and regulated by the Department of Transport and no one in government dares to raise the politically sensitive subject of axing train services.
“It’s worth pondering though whether the fact empty trains leave stations every day while passengers on other services are transported like cattle is a quaint and charming eccentricity or whether it simply confirms that the way we run our railways is totally barmy.”
The Trains Now Departed by Michael Williams is out on May 7. Published by Random House the book is priced £20.