Not exactly a railroad buff

I've decided. I'll never really be a thoroughgoing railway enthusiast. In fact, my doubts on this score (I'm told) began unusually early. Not that I wasn't - in common with countless small boys - born with a primeval ambition to be a train driver. I felt that urge all right. My parents apparently managed to channel this slightly uninformed desire into the more realistic promise of a train ride, and the I looked forward to the event with plenty of pestering, questioning, and excitement, no doubt.

Finally the great day came. With burning excitement, I sat on the edge of my upholstered British Railways compartment seat, short legs dangling. The guard blew his whistle. There were staccato shouts. Slamming doors. Distantly hissing steam. The articulations of the train jolted suddenly with a strange mixture of squeak, thud, and clang, as though uncertain if they were linked in any kind of permanent relationship. But all this was lost on me. I still sat there, waiting with eager expectation.

A smooth forward movement now took over. The iron columns of the station marched past the windows with mounting acceleration. They were replaced by steep ramparts of soot-blackened stone and, in turn, by dusty grass embankments. We reached open country. The swift fly-past of telegraph poles, cows, and trees settled into a happy rhythm accompanied by a garrulous clackety-clack, clackety-clack, clackety-clack. . . .

And I burst into a flood of uncontrollable sobs.

It was a strange reaction, you must admit, for a dedicated train driver of the future. But I was inconsolable. My parents tried in vain to penetrate the hullabaloo. Baffled, they attempted redirection of the tears by applying a large handkerchief to my face in general and nose in particular, and punctuated this compassionate action with the command ''Blow!'' But the tears still flowed, streamed, gushed forth, without let.

I exaggerate, I suppose. Though maybe not much. The episode may have vanished from my memory to become mere family hearsay; but I do recall my vigorous childhood propensity for ululations(sic) of the wettest sort. Perhaps I had not yet learned to distinguish between mere disappointment and grief, celebrating both by identical paroxysms.

Things apparently subsided in the end. In between gasps for air the concerned adults inquired if I wasn't, for some reason, altogether enjoying my first train ride?

''My - but!'' I spluttered, a broken man. ''But - where - is - the train ?''

My parents, I'm sure, could scarcely believe they had introduced such an idiot into the world. Even today, however, I'm not entirely convinced the occurrence wasn't a sign of extraordinary brightness and perceptivity. After all , my contact with trains until then had been external. I had looked at them in books, or in toy form. They were smaller than I was, for a start, and they had a certain shape and configuration. Naturally I expected that a ''train ride'' would be like a horse ride: I would have a saddle and stirrups and sit astride. It had never struck me that I might - like Jonah and the whale - travel along in the train. The experience bore no recognizable relationship to the peculiar delights of a train as I knew them. Getting inside it made it disappear.

As things have turned out, I haven't become a train driver. Nor have I developed into one of your out-and-out railway enthusiasts. I am not indifferent , however, to the romance of railways or the oddly emotional appeal of the age of steam, now past. I can listen like the next man to a full-length recording of a great old locomotive overexerting itself as it manfully climbs some famously steep or remote stretch of track, and the effect on me may not be as rousing as Beethoven, but it doesn't leave me cold.

I can appreciate the absorbing interest many people have in everything to do with rolling stock, tunnels, turntables, stations, and viaducts. But I couldn't go as far as the poet John Betjeman who, asked to name ''a most suitable second employment,'' said he ''would like to be a stationmaster on a small country branch line (single track).'' Nor could I spend every weekend pursuing, photographing, traveling on different lines as true railway nuts do. But mania apart, I do find myself in surprisingly strong agreement with those who feel appalled by a notice, small-printed in The Times of London recently. The British Railways Board plans, it said, ''to withdraw passenger service between Settle Junction and Carlisle.''

To the unconcerned these words may seem unmemorable; the proposed event, subject to a public hearing, of no great moment. But to railway enthusiasts this announcement, though not unexpected, is a war declaration. The ''Settle-Carlisle Joint Action Group'' is swinging into action.

This line is more than a century old, and not only do its 72 miles pass through breathtaking countryside in the northwest part of England, but its construction in the 1860s and '70s by some 6,000 underpaid navvies in unbelievable conditions is one of those tales of Victorian ''heroism'' that irresistibly appeals to the imagination of those who love Victorian heroism. At base, of course, it was really a triumph of worker-exploitation over natural forces. But - whatever - this spectacular line is (just) its still living monument.

In the 1970s I happened to be a frequent passenger on the Settle-Carlisle train. For someone living near Settle and visiting Glasgow, it was certainly convenient. But it was its unique, unquestionable beauty that was always a fresh and exhilarating experience. Its uncompromising tension with the awesome surrounding countryside invests the line with unusual excitement. Through a long stretch it climbs not only to the highest station in Britain (at Dent) but right up to the highest point on any British mainline railway, ''Ais Gill Summit.''

Aware of British Rail's avowedly utilitarian indifference to all of this, some friends joined my wife and me at Carlisle the other weekend to travel south - presumably for the last time - on the line. Like practiced rail devotees we hung windily out of windows and rattled poignantly through tunnels, shot past desolate, remotely sited stations, and swept over countless stone viaducts. We felt in our bones the history and the ruggedness of it all. Too soon it was over and we slid quietly into the comfortable market town at the line's southern end. The countryside had looked magnificent, and the ride had been memorable. But it was odd. Something was missing for our friends in the experience.

I believe the trouble may have been that, like me as a child, they were not in a position to see the train from the outside as well as the in. To really appreciate the bracing air and dizzy height of Dent Station, for instance, you either have to jump out of the train (the station is no longer a stop) or approach it another time by road: You have to spend some time there. It is a dream place of silent grandeur. It is longing turned into landscape.

And creeping (for safety) in the train over the 24 arches of Ribblehead Viaduct also gives too small an idea of its splendor. This is surely the line's most wonderful single feature: A measured stride of stone arches that crosses, with the inevitable grace of supremely inspired architecture (though mere ''engineering''), a sweeping breadth of spongy wasteland. In the train you have to strain to glimpse it at all. The full scale and proportion are appreciable only if you have stood below it - like those hikers on the thin ribbon of road down there, gazing at its long, gently curving progression: the epitome of all that is sublime about Trains!

Documentaries about railways always show them objectively as well as subjectively: from the observer's viewpoint no less than the passenger's. And the shots most vividly remembered are the panoramic ones with the train, miniaturized by distance, snaking its way through the vastness of dales and moorland, fell and flatland. Certainly this is stunningly true of the Settle-Carlisle line.

Only efficiency experts will greet its closure with applause: it is silly, of course, to go on maintaining a track that has more beauty than usefulness - isn't it? If, in fact, that is truly the case?

If it is abandoned finally, what will happen to Ribblehead Viaduct? Will it be left to fall or be dynamited?

But that wind-bare expanse of North Yorkshire across which the great structure has for a century and more so majestically paced is quite simply unimaginable without it. If ever there were a candidate for conservation, this - for its appearance alone, for its massive lightness, its heroics, its downright dignity - must be it.

England is unimaginable without it. Or do I sob too loudly?

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.