There’s something very appealing to me about train journeys. Somehow, the idea of spending several days getting somewhere makes it all seem a little more real and important – instead of a 5 hour flight Perth to Sydney, you could spend 3 days and nights on one of the world’s great (and longest) train journeys, the Indian Pacific. In Western Australia, you can take the Australind to Bunbury, in the state’s south. It takes about 3 hours, and when the newest diesels which run the route were built, they met the standard of the most modern jet airliners. Bearing in mind, this was when the Boeing 737 was still quite new – these days, like that plane, it’s just, well, a bit rubbish. BUT, the service is a necessary one, and we enjoyed ourselves. And so did the mysterious vagabond in the row behind us, who appeared to be inhaling from something rather more special than a cigarette… You can also catch the Prospector to Kalgoorlie, which is hailed by the service provider as “WA’s great train journey.” I haven’t done this one, but it’s on the list.
I’ve always had a great interest in trains, but I think this interest in conquering some of the world’s great train journeys stems from two places: the preoccupation in popular fiction with the Orient Express, and a video I once saw at my Dad’s parents’ house which has become my favourite documentary. The episode of 1980s BBC documentary series Great Railway Journeys of the World “Confessions of a Train Spotter” starred Michael Palin, and is notable for being Palin’s first travelogue and also for having nothing to do with heroin addiction.
Gramps put it on, and I, unlike most of my siblings, was transfixed (this is usually what happens with TV shows I like). At the time, I didn’t know who this Michael Palin was, but he seemed quirky and charming, and this extends into his documentary style, at least in this program.
The whole thing is very light hearted, with just enough facts to make it a documentary, but it’s really a very thinly disguised passion piece for Palin. To be honest, I don’t care about that because the trivia he mentions are interesting, such as the location of the 1963 Great Train Robbery, or digs at the canal transport industry fat cats, who “spent rather a lot of money on what was rapidly becoming Britain’s shortest lived transport revolution.” This amused me greatly, maybe because, in one of my more interesting lives, I once wrote an Economics paper on how quickly canals were outmoded.
Palin asks whether trainspotting is uniquely British. There’s certainly plenty of quirky people on the preserved Flying Scotsman who would be out of place in any other setting. The preservation of steam engines and railway lines also preserved an English culture of railway travel. The steam train, as Palin puts it, is an enduring image. Even just watching the mechanics of the wheels going round is captivating – steam engines really were works of engineering genius.
One of the best things about “Confessions of a Trainspotter” is that it seldom lacks pace. It’s well edited, which makes the 4 day journey go past in what seems like the blink of an eye (and at an hour’s length this is no mean feat). Even when Palin moves into the rural networks and metropolitan mass transit systems of the north of England (mainly Newcastle), he keeps it moving with fun little asides, and one glorious pun in his narration about a signal box operator.He also makes some interesting observations about the longevity of rail infrastructure, and compares the incredible Forth Railway Bridge of the 1880s to Concorde and moon buggies; two things the bridge has outlived by some considerable years since the documentary was filmed! On screen, Palin is just like somebody’s awkward Dad, or an excited, overgrown child who is over the moon to be given the opportunity to do this trip, and be able to bill it to the BBC.
Really, if you’re wondering whether you should bother to take a look at this, it’s worth it for the scenery (and establishing shots) alone. The rolling English countryside gradually gives way to the “gloomily beautiful” Scottish moors, and the civil engineering majesty that is the Forth Bridge never ceases to impress. All of this is accompanied by a fantastic ’80s synth soundtrack which actually gels rather well with the footage of steam engines racing through countryside cuttings – a juxtaposition of a most successful sort. To be fair, there’s also a few really rather awful street theatre sequences sharing with us the wonder and multitude of events at the Edinburgh International Festival 1980, which, with all context lost to history, are either cringeworthy or fascinating depending whether you’re normal or an anthropologist.
At the end of the day though, Palin decides that it’s all about collecting. Collecting experiences, collecting engine numbers, collecting memorabilia. It’s in a train lover’s blood, and it never really goes away.
You can view “Confessions of a Trainspotter” here.