THE printed notice on the window proclaims that Wivenhoe Station’s ticket office isn’t working. That’s not the ticket machine on the platform but the actual ticket office system. There follows a lengthy struggle with the platform machine outside. I dread having to use it. In the manner of a baby which doesn’t want its dinner, the ticket machine keeps spitting perfectly good 20 pence coins back at me and going “Mnyaah!”

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After an interval of grumbling and whirring – that was just me – I obtain my ticket and discover another printed notice. The expensive new steel and glass waiting room on the platform is currently out of service, due, no doubt, to some electro-mechanical non-interface.

The train arrives and I select a carriage, only to discover that there’s a notice taped to its door button. The door isn’t working, it says, offering yet another apology. It’s 1.33 pm on the 7th of January, 2013, we haven’t even set off yet and there are already three things out of order. It hardly inspires optimism, does it?

The might of the Nazi war machine did less damage to our national railways than recent British governments have. I try not to use the trains at all nowadays. I’m lucky, however – because many people are forced to experience this symphony of ineptitude on a daily basis.

I would describe my relationship with the railways as being akin to that of a man who has gradually fallen out of love with the wife he once worshipped. Taking this analogy one surrealistic step further, can a national railway be unfaithful to you? It’s possible, isn’t it?

Supposing our rail service is conducting an affair with another country. Think of it: all those weekends when it’s not actually here; all the occasions when it claims to be undergoing “improvements”. There are entire weekends when there’s no sign of a train at all, just a fleet of shabby replacement buses, for which you still have to pay full fare.

Then, on Monday morning, the trains eventually turn up again, acting all daffy enigmatic, and not doing their job properly. Those “rail improvements” are a cover story, I tell you. Our entire railway system is having an affair, possibly with the Germans or the Spanish. Right now, some other country is enjoying the attentions of a lovely, efficient, train service, at bargain prices. Someone must be. Because it’s not us.

Could we divorce a railway system? Perhaps we should try.

“Couldn’t we simply return to using steam trains ?” I ask Colin Andrews, a former steam train driver.

There’s a tactful pause whilst he considers the matter. Colin began working for British Rail in 1955, aged 15. He was a train cleaner. After a period as a “passed” cleaner he became a train fireman. Within a decade he was actually driving steam trains.

Imagine. As a Boy’s Job, that’s right up there with astronaut, explorer, lion-tamer, fireworks-tester and being Hank Marvin.

He shows me a picture of a train. It’s a Royal steam train, snapped somewhere in East Anglia, between London and Sandringham. “You drove that?” I ask. “No,” Colin replies. “But I fired her.”

Colin Andrews, having worked his way up though the ranks, drove steam trains for only a couple of years before the system went over to diesels. They were incredibly noisy and forever breaking down, he told me. He added that with a steam engine, there were only seven faults which could make them stop. One of them was the whistle not working.

I study this man, who’s actually in very fine fettle for his age, and I realise I’m looking at one of the Last of the Steam Train Drivers.

Sure, there are plenty of steam railways up and down the country. There’s an entire sector of British weekend life that will forever dream of driving The Titfield Thunderbolt. Each village and town, in every shire and county, must still contain accountants, vicars and newspaper editors: grown men who really would have preferred to have been engine drivers.

There are also a great many people who’ll queue just to ride in the carriages whilst on holiday, then watch and wave whenever they pass. I know this to be true because, sadly, I am one of them. This, though, is merely hobbyism, next to Colin Andrews, who once drove and fired real steam trains for a living.

I read recently in a national newspaper that a case could still be made for a return to steam.

It probably sounds like a rabid idea but the thing is, we once had a rail system that actually worked. Not only that but the fares were affordable. There were also stations and halts in nearly every little town, which meant that they could transport freight. Almost 50 years after Colin Andrews drove his first steam train, the system no longer exists.

So I ask Colin: “Supposing you came across a steam engine now, in some railway shed. Assuming that it was in good working order and you had the coal and the wood . . .” He nods. “Well, could you fire her up and drive her – would you still be able to do that?”

“Yes,” Colin answers, in such a way as to indicate that, like a well-kept old engine, there’s at least a small fire still smouldering there; a fire which, one suspects, probably wouldn’t take too much to get going again.

To be continued . . .

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