First class to Cornwall
By early 1974 the chaos and disruption of the engineering work at Preston was finally over. In May the Queen visited the spruced-up station to unveil a plaque on platform 4. It announced the completion of the electrification of all 401 miles of the route between London Euston and Glasgow Central.
Journey times were now drastically reduced; Glasgow was now five hours from London. Preston, the half way point, was just two and a half hours from either London or Glasgow.
The new trains were marketed as “Electric Scots” and were headed by brand new, although rather boxy looking, Class 87 Electric locomotives. These were by far the most powerful Britain had ever produced and the sleek “inter-city” passenger coaches they hauled were fully air-conditioned and had none of the opening windows that were found on normal trains.
Long before their arrival I knew all about the Electric Scots of course. My fascination with trains had now reached a new stage. I had begun to read books and magazines about railways. Mostly I borrowed books from the local library and I was already close to exhausting their collection.
Yet, for all my growing knowledge my actual experience of rail travel was still confined to trips on the little diesel trains between St Anne’s and Preston and on the narrow gauge steam railways of Wales. I could have told the Queen that the Class 87 developed 5,000 horsepower, had been built at Crewe and could reach speeds of up to 110 miles per hour, but had I still not travelled on a train beyond Preston.
That was about to change.
My father had been promoted at the aircraft factory and work on the MRCA (later Tornado) aircraft was going well. Things were looking up on the financial front and the holiday budget had been increased.
In June I was overcome with deep joy when I learned that, instead of Wales, we would be going all the way down to Falmouth in Cornwall for our 1974 summer holiday. We would be going on the train via London and, as if the prospect of two 200+ mile train journeys in a single day wasn’t enough, we would be travelling in first class too.
My mother and father had actually purchased a railway package trip to Cornwall. British Rail marketed these holidays as “Golden Rail” and they were an excellent deal. They included first class return rail travel, a week in a hotel at half board and taxi rides from home, hotel and even across London.
Eventually the departure day arrived and we found ourselves on Preston station waiting for the 8:03am to London. The train, from Carlisle, pulled in right on time and was hauled by a shiny new blue Class 87. At the front of the train were three first class coaches with the distinctive yellow stripe above their windows. We boarded the middle one and quickly found our reserved seats in the compartment.
I already knew that the sound that electric trains made was different again from steam and diesels. Electric trains seemed to whine almost like wounded animals and our class 87 was no exception. It certainly sounded as if it was in quite a bit of pain as it pulled out of Preston.
But it wasn’t the sound that astounded me, it was the acceleration. The train seemed to take no time at all to reach its top speed of 100 miles per hour. I was soon travelling faster than I had done in my whole life and, not only that, I was finally beyond Preston.
Inside the compartment it was all quiet and smooth. With the new continuous-welded rails there was none of the usual “clickety clak” noise that the rail joints made. Without any windows to leave open there were no noisy draughts either. The only noise was the deep growl of the air brakes coming on for the stops at Wigan, Warrington and Crewe.
I spent most of the journey with my head to the window looking out at the other trains whooshing past and at the animated shapes that the overhead wires made as we passed them at speed.
Soon we were pulling into Euston and the fun continued. We emerged from the platform to the concourse at London Euston. This was the “New Euston” as the station had been totally reconstructed at the start of the route modernisation project in 1968. It was basically a concrete box and much more like an airline terminal than a station. It is fair to say that the design has not stood the test of time, but in 1974 it looked modern and futuristic.
We dived down a staircase and found the taxi rank located, cleverly I thought, directly under the concourse. A line of London black taxis stood at the rank and we were helped into one by the porters.
London, with its bright red buses, traffic and crowds of people, was another sensory overload for my young brain. I didn’t have too much time to enjoy it though as we were soon arriving at the taxi rank at Paddington.
The 12:00 Paddington to Penzance express was already standing at platform one. We boarded the third to the last carriage. The first class compartment was almost identical to the one that we had been in from Preston but it wasn’t air-conditioned. There was the usual little window to open for ventilation. This didn’t really bother me as it meant I could hear the sounds of the trains coming in.
I told my parents that our train was being hauled by a “Western”. It was a diesel- hydraulic of 2700hp and capable of 90 miles per hour. To me it made a clattering sound quite distinctive from the growling and whistling of the diesel-electrics I was used to at Preston.
We set off on time and before long the steward came through the train and asked if there were any takers for lunch. I was totally amazed when my parents looked at each other, smiled and then nodded to him.
Suddenly we were sitting in the dining car. It was actually a first class open carriage but with white table cloths over the tables and cutlery set up for lunch. I can’t remember the food we had but I know the whole experience was just amazing. It was just incredible to me to see people eating in a speeding train just as if they were in a restaurant.
We finished dessert and went back to our compartment. We soon reached Taunton but we stopped again just after the station. We sat there for almost an hour before it was announced that a train had broken down ahead and it would be some time before the backlog of trains was cleared. This was, to me, exciting stuff but I think my parents began to miss their car and to fret about reaching the hotel before dark.
Eventually we pulled out of Taunton two hours late and made our way through Exeter, along the sea wall at Dawlish, through Plymouth, over the Royal Albert Bridge into Cornwall and along the picturesque Cornish main line to Truro. We changed at Truro into a little diesel train and headed down the branch line to the terminus at Falmouth.
It was after 7pm when we stepped out of Falmouth station and the lady taxi driver greeted us with a loud “Golden Rail” in her deep West Country accent. We made the hotel just in time for dinner and the day ended well.
The rest of the holiday was enjoyable enough but my father missed his car. Not having a vehicle of our own limited our mobility a fair bit. Cornish bus services were not reliable, cheap or frequent. The journey back, via Birmingham on an older train, was a little anti-climatic too.
We never went on summer holiday by train again. In following years we drove to Bournemouth, Scarborough and to Torquay. I always had a wonderful time and there was usually something of railway interest to entertain me at the destination, but nothing ever quite came close to that first “Golden Rail” day.
It was a day that took my growing love affair with trains to a whole new level.