This piece was written on 07 July 2008
I’ve never really understood the perennial jibes about railway food. I’ve always enjoyed riding on trains and in retirement I still travel a lot on trains for pleasure. For three years recently I was a mystery shopper for Arriva Trains Northern (and their successors) and my pass allowed me to travel anywhere on their extensive network free of charge in exchange for email reports – but that’s another story for another day.
I always sample whatever on-board food is available. When I have to hang around a station waiting for a connection, I usually sample what's on offer in the station buffets. For what it’s worth, I find the best Bacon Butties these days are those served up at Hebden Bridge (West Yorkshire) station cafe where they are cooked to order in a delightfully old-fashioned buffet with very friendly service. I have often left a train travelling between Leeds and Manchester simply to call in there for a breakfast. My second favourite buffet is the one at Preston; my least favourite is at Blackpool North; and I avoid the ones at all London mainline stations like the plague.
I have found it sad, for nostalgic rather than utility reasons, to read about the demise of dining cars on most British trains. Apparently the very first dining car in UK was on the London Kings Cross to Leeds service in 1879. From my childhood in Wakefield, I have always looked upon that particular route as my own personal one. The trains used to pass close to my bedroom window during WW2; I often used the route, now known as the East Coast Main Line, during my 47 years in the RAF; and I’ve frequently used it since retirement in 2001 - but now purely for pleasure.
Looking through my diaries I find that the last times I had full served meals on a train were in 2005, on the first two days of one of my regular 14-day Rail Rover tickets. That year, for the first time, I had treated myself to a 1st Class ticket. I started day one, 6 July 2005, at Wakefield, travelling on the 0542 GNER to London Kings Cross. GNER provided a seat service of excellent hot snacks - but they were not free. On the Virgin service from Euston to Holyhead I enjoyed a sumptuous free breakfast, served at my seat. By the time I got back to Wakefield via Manchester, I had travelled 606 train miles in 11hrs 35 minutes
The following day, 7 July 2005, I travelled on the 0726 Midland Mainline (MML) service from Leeds to London St Pancras – a journey that was destined never to be completed. Midland Mainline was never a very glamorous or speedy rail service (in my opinion). Breakfast, served at seat after leaving Sheffield, was nowhere near as good as Virgin’s the day before and the service was only just about adequate. That day was disrupted by the terrorist atrocities, later known as "Seven Seven", after the date, in London. Our speed was reduced to a crawl north of Luton and we soon began to wonder why. There were several MML managers in the front first class coach with me and they were having hurried whispered conversations with the Train Manager and on their mobile phones. They looked more and more worried as the train’s speed reduced. Not having a mobile phone of my own, I assumed that there was something wrong with the train. Eventually the Train Manager announced, mysteriously, that our train would be terminating at Luton because all London stations had been closed by the police!! We didn’t know until hours later what had actually happened.
When we arrived at Luton, several minutes later than we should have arrived at St Pancras, there were already a number of stationary commuter trains on all the other southbound platforms and there were literally hundreds of passengers milling around. Everyone was strangely silent. We were ordered to leave our train and proceed over the footbridge to Platform 5 adjacent to the main car park. Perhaps we were going to be loaded onto buses to complete our journey to the capital? Word began to spread through the crowds about the bombs in central London. A Tannoy announcement then told us that all mainline and underground stations were closed and the London police had advised that it was not wise, and would be very difficult, for anyone to attempt to travel to central London - even by road.
Midland Mainline staff then advised us that the train we had travelled on from Leeds and Sheffield would now be returning north, calling at all stations, and that, if we wished, we could travel on it. Most of us did so – but the few of us in 1st Class did not get another breakfast. It was a very sombre journey.
It was only some weeks later that I learned that the car park adjacent to Platform 5 where me and several hundred other passengers had been gathered waiting for information, was where the terrorists, who had also travelled from Leeds but on an earlier train, had left their standby car with the reserve bomb on board.