Train Spotting

The white-painted gates at the level crossing bisecting Gray Street, Broughty Ferry clattered shut, trembled for a moment then settled down to await the arrival of the next express from Edinburgh to Aberdeen. So did I. It was 1946 and I was eight years old. Easily remembered since eight is my favourite number. I was a compulsive watcher of trains.

My usual vantage point was a short expanse of dyke to the east side of the gates. Scrambling onto it, you stood up, holding on to the iron bars that separated you from the track, and which were just about the only railings to survive the war years, every other iron barrier having ended up in the nation's melting pot to provide the raw material for making guns and tanks. Waiting for the train could be irksome but on most sunny days a diversion of sorts helped to while away the minutes. A little way from my perch a chemist's shop began. In such weather the canvas sunscreen was deployed, held in place by two struts sticking out from the shop, one at either end. As I stood on the wall the southerly of these was roughly level with my head. It was about three feet away - nothing to a boy raised on Tarzan movies. I'd launch myself into space, grab the bar and start to swing. The sunscreen didn't like it and even less charmed was the chemist himself but I had no worries on that score. I'd outpaced him many a time.

I did not know it at the time but Broughty had been a community of no special note until the coming of the railway in 1838. Now the seven-minute trip by rail from Dundee East station suddenly made of it a plum destination and in 1864 it was elevated to the status of police burgh. By 1913 Broughty had become a suburb of the city. It was a playground for Dundonians, especially the toffs, of whom there were many in this city of jute. Jute was big business. Products made from it encircled the world. Even the wagons driven west by the American pioneers mostly had covers of Dundee jute.

The train was due. First sign of its approach, surprisingly, arrived in silence. I always detected it as a mild tremor creeping upward through my sandals. Then you did hear it. And was there ever another such sound? Somewhere between a pant and a scream, this potent cocktail of din was abetted by rattles, wheezes, and if you were lucky, by a piercing blast as the whistle dispelled any slight doubt as to what was approaching. Now it was upon me. I'd hang on to the railings with all my might as the giant tore through the neat little station. Here it was then, eighty miles an hour of steel, wood, coal, sandwiches, human beings and toilet bowls. Swept aside by its passage, all that was bland, dull and ordinary disappeared momentarily, replaced by what might best be described as delightful shock. Even after it had gone, movement remained. Smoke existed for an instant in unrepeatable form before twisting away on the natural breeze. I often thought of these express services as flying villages, each with its own long, unstable street, populated by villagers who seldom knew their neighbours. It was practically the only place in the world indeed, where if one fell asleep there remained the possibility of waking up in the company of a beautiful stranger.

There were two stations in the Ferry, the smaller being on the town's western edge but the one I knew best was in its very heart. It was a mystical place. In its echoing underpass noises from every type of train roared through above your head in sublime exaggeration. You got to know the sound 'signatures' of the various types - rattling goods trains, expresses, commuter traffic, maintenance wagons. Here, you could also whistle the tunes of the day, the whistles rebounding at you from the tiled walls. The underpass is still there, though a filthy, graffiti-scarred shadow of its former self.

Over the rails another treat awaited. The enclosed wooden passenger bridge was the sootiest structure I have ever seen. Caked in black grime inside as well as out, here you could stand a mere foot above the kings of steam, smoke from whose funnels wrapped around the bridge and through the multitude of cracks in that edifice, insinuated itself onto the inside walls and windows. The windows were a joke. They hadn't been cleaned for years and might as well have been of timber. At that time a passenger could buy a weekly ticket to Dundee for four shillings and sixpence. He could travel as often as he liked within that period. Tickets were of stiff green card and on the tickets of female purchasers, a large W was stamped. Single or return tickets, of the same card, were much smaller.

Since the really big engines rarely stopped at Broughty, travel to and from there was almost exclusively aboard commuter trains, their Third Class carriages devoid of any corridor - or toilets. The window in the upper part of every carriage door fascinated me. To open it the traveller pulled on a stout leather belt hanging down the inside door. This disengaged the belt from a series of studs which held the window in the closed position. Now let the belt go and as it vanished with a rush up then down into a recess inside the door, the window also dropped inside the door. Fresh air! You could stick your head out to feel the rush of the wind, or watch the engine pulling you along the gleaming track. Some boys of my acquaintance used to open the door while the train was in full flow and step out onto the narrow running board, shutting the door behind them. Reaching then for the window of the next carriage which they knew by pre-arrangement would be open, they?d grab its upper lip and either pull themselves - or be dragged - to the safety of the interior again. I never took part in that. I was never quite that daft.

Inside, the carriages were clean enough, although they did not sport the wide seats, each with armrests, of the 1st Class compartments, which also had white headrests. 1st Class sat six, Third Class eight. The Third Class seats and back rests were covered with some hard-wearing material of a dark red colour. Each carriage generally sported a mirror and, if a smoking compartment, a couple of ashtrays built into the doors. Plastic notices promised dire consequences for anyone discovered in the act of expectorating. A quirky conundrum might best describe the situation with Second Class. Over the years the railway had dabbled with Second Class carriages, which came and went with the tide of opinion in the management boardrooms of the various railway companies. From Broughty to Dundee the main morning commuter train always had a carriage which was locked to anyone but businessmen who smoked. It was known as the Shag-burners coach and its occupants were always referred to as Shaggies. One lady who always took the same train as her husband was obliged to sit elsewhere.

The platforms at Broughty Ferry's main station bore a number of delights. Chocolate machines sold Fry's Five Boys or Cadbury's Bourneville at sixpence a bar. On busy days they had to be refilled several times. You could weigh yourself for a penny, standing on the scales while the big clock-like face in front of you spun round to record the good or the bad news. Cigarette dispensers operated on both platforms. There was a waiting room on either platform and during winter their crackling fires were welcome sights on a frosty morning. The fires were set by the porters, usually about 6 a.m. and were kept going all day. Porters typically also scrubbed the waiting room floors once a week, on their hands and knees. Other railway employees frequently spotted were the rail maintenance gangs, whose job it was to trudge the tracks looking out for actual and impending problems. Were these men available today most of the high-profile rail accidents of recent years would never have occurred.

The gardens of both Ferry stations were beautifully tended and frequently won prizes in local and even national competitions. This was all the more remarkable for the staff got no help from their employers towards buying plants or equipment. Most of the money took the form of donations from passengers, the coins typically dropped into large metal drums weighted with sand in the bottom.

It is surely appropriate to signal the end of this entire trip down memory lane on a railway station for even then steam trains were travelling on a one-way ticket to oblivion, swallowed up by a subsequent world in which we have permitted cleverness to overtake wisdom. Those few places in which steam trains are yet to be found do however, offer some sense that all of value has not gone for good. There, patience, dedication and the determination to preserve old crafts reign. Thanks to the selfless volunteers who carry on the tradition, that evocative thing, a departing steam train, can still reach something in the very heart of you. In the toot of the whistle, in the glow of the furnace a person may yet find elevation of the spirit sufficient to float him along, leaving beneath his feet for a while at least the limitless vacuity of life in the 21st century.


Submitted by Bob