I'm fascinated – even besotted – by railways. It's no small enthusiasm but I'd stress that this does not make me a trainspotter. Not that I'm one of those who mock trainspotting – to me it seems like a perfectly understandable and legitimate pursuit. It just isn't mine.
No, I grew to love railway travel because I was introduced to it early, nearly on my doorstep, and then had it stolen from me. To explain – it's summer, 1964. I'm three-and-a-half and standing on the sunny southbound platform of Back o' Loch Halt in my home town of Kirkintilloch. A hot sun beats on the tracks and there are warm, drowsy smells of diesel and creosote. The rails gleam in the sun like channels of mercury. The town centre isn't far away but all is peaceful here; we're deep in a cutting that's lush with greenery and alive with buzzing and butterflies. An occasional motor vehicle does intrude, growling over the road bridge that crosses the north end of the station – but not often.
And then comes a touch of magic: the rails begin a sweet silver singing.
'The train's coming,' says my aunt.
Less than a minute later, the yellow-painted face of a green diesel train, with two windows like eyes, emerges suddenly from under the road bridge and gasps to a halt. My aunt wrenches a door open and we find a seat – dusty, springy, radiating heat even in summer and with a warm friendly smell like a pew cushion in church.
The train judders into life and begins the next step, the short mile to Lenzie Junction Station. I look out of the window and then, as the train screws tightly to the right, I watch the swaying and rippling of the folds on the corridor that links the coaches. When you walk between coaches – an unsettling experience – the corridor smells strongly of rubber, like the mask the dentist puts over your face to send you to sleep.
Ten minutes later we're in Glasgow, under the great curving glass heavens of Queen Street Station, on the doorstep of the magnificent George Square. What a way for a child to travel to the city! A sensory explosion, an adventure and just a little magic. I'm glad I wasn't born 50 years later when I would probably have made my first trips to the city by car and motorway; technical prose rather than poetry.
It wasn't long after this, the beginning of September the same year, when I was told that, within a week, we'd no longer be able to get the train to Glasgow. No doubt there were bad words said about Beeching and Labour letting its people down, but I don't remember those. I just remember the terrible realisation that our trains were being stolen from us, and I also remember bursting out crying.
September 1964 was the day the axe fell, and the last passengers clattered up the covered wooden walkway that led to platform level at Kirkintilloch's main station, or down the narrow asphalt paths amid luxuriant greenery at Back o' Loch. Some trains did still pass through the town, though, as the line remained for goods until April 1966. It was as if our railway had stepped back in time; no more modern diesel passenger trains, just short rakes of rusty wagons hauled by dirty old steam locomotives.
During that last stage in the life of our railway, I remember being told to wait as we crossed the magnificent aqueduct that carried (and still carries) the Forth and Clyde Canal across the railway, between Kirkintilloch and Back o' Loch. 'We'll see a train in a minute,' I was told.
'Train' – the word still conjured up the little green diesel caterpillars on which we'd travelled to Glasgow. But what emerged from beneath the aqueduct was a roaring fire dragon that propelled noise and heat and smoke and grit vertically towards us. Actually, it was just a little old steam locomotive hauling a few wagons but it seemed terrifying to me. More tears. That's another way, I suppose, in which I'm different from trainspotters; they generally despised those little green passenger trains ('diesel multiple units' to give them their Sunday name, or DMUs for short) while loving the steam locomotives they had replaced. Me? The diesels had enchanted me, but steam had scared me.
Those DMUs lasted well into the 1990s. Whenever I travelled on one in later years, from Lenzie to Stirling, say, I reflected that it might have visited Kirkintilloch when it was just a young train.
There are few traces of the railway left in Kirkintilloch. One atmospheric relic did survive a surprisingly long while – just into the 80s, if I recall correctly. A massive brick arch that had once supported Kirkintilloch Station itself remained long after most of the rest of the bridging and embankments had been demolished. It crossed and sheltered part of the roadside footpath along the broad street of Eastside. As you came under it, your footsteps echoed and resonated. This Sherlock Holmesian artefact deserved to have Hansom cabs clattering through it, but it was demolished and there's a roundabout there now. Just the fate you would expect Scottish councillors to choose for a thing of beauty and character.
Nor has the rest of the line fared any better. New roads follow much of the former railway formation and one has been driven right through the site of Back o' Loch Halt. There's little magic there now, no singing steel rails. Just a steady roar of traffic.
But if my own railway was snatched from me, I sought out others, their serpentine steel writhings, their towering Victorian terminals, their surviving sleepy country byways. I travel by rail as much as I can and still enjoy the precise percussion of the wheels over the points and the unspooling countryside or cityscape at the window. I could stand for hours at a quiet country station (standing in, perhaps, for Back o' Loch) watching the world go by, and even more so could I waste days in absorbing the teeming, throbbing, glorious life of a major railway station.
I've travelled far and wide by rail and I've used the Gare du Nord in Paris, Budapest Keleti, the Hauptbanhofs in Vienna, Berlin, Frankfurt and Cologne, as well as York, St Pancras, Newcastle Central and Edinburgh Waverley. I can stand amidst the abundant life of Glasgow Queen Street and inwardly recite the placename-poems on the departure boards:
And, yes, there are still the trains themselves, whether the miserable 'pacers' and 'sprinters' or the gleaming sleek pendolinos and Eurostars. So much of the railway draws me that I suppose I can't deny a certain kinship with trainspotters. Mine is a mania fuelled by loss, but it's a mania nonetheless.