This month marks the fortieth anniversary of the BBC’s memorable feature about the 3:17 to Cleethorpes, that legendary railway train famous throughout Europe. Second only to the Orient Express, its name had come to mean adventure and romance, and whenever it was mentioned men whispered of danger and excitement.
Times have changed. In 2010 the Orient Express no longer operates as a regular passenger service, but only offers a few luxury tourist trips each summer along parts of its former route. Yet the 3:17 to Cleethorpes, though its fame has faded, still makes its run every day except Sunday. Its route has changed over the years: it no longer starts from London but runs from Meadowhall, a shopping centre on the edge of Sheffield.
One day last autumn, finding myself in Sheffield with an afternoon to spare, I decided to take a trip on this once-famous train and compare the journey with its counterpart of 40 years ago. As you will see, much has changed since then, and mostly for the better.
Back in 1970, British Rail’s trains were known for being dirty, uncomfortable and unreliable, and the staff were consistently surly, unhelpful, obstreperous and downright rude. The BBC’s reporter David Hatch (long before he became their Managing Director) found to his cost that his journey took much, much longer than the scheduled 4 hours 42 minutes. To be fair to British Rail, this delay was due to sabotage by Australian spies (long before they started doing Israel’s dirty work).
Much has changed, and mostly for the better. The much-reviled British Rail is no more. The 3:17 to Cleethorpes is now operated by Transpennine Express (appropriately enough, since it starts its journey at Manchester Airport), and I was excited to see it pull in to Meadowhall right on time. Of course, it was 15:17 rather than 3:17, but such is the price of progress.
Forty years ago, this train would have been one of those dirty old smelly, rattly, underpowered diesel multiple-units that were nothing more than slow buses on rails. Today, however, I found it to be a modern, reasonably clean and comfortable three-car Class 185 set, quite pleasant overall and capable of a surprising turn of speed. The staff were friendly, courteous and helpful, and I had a pleasant chat with Duncan the train conductor, who was very excited to learn how privileged he was to be in charge of such a historic train.
One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the unpredictability of the onboard catering facilities. I didn’t see the promised snack trolley (which has replaced the buffet car of 40 years ago), so I couldn’t find out if train food still tastes of oxtail soup, old cabbages, and rotting kipper heads.
After a 5-minute stop in Doncaster, the train passes through a wasteland of slagheaps, then on through autumnal fields and modern housing estates. We crossed over canals as we entered the flat Lincolnshire landscape near Althorpe that is so much like the Norfolk fens. After a brief stop at S—-horpe, the sky clouded over and we passed through a grey landscape of opencast coal mines, railway sidings, and more slagheaps, then on through open rolling fields of unidentified vegetables.
The ride was still exciting, but I felt no danger. I didn’t see a single notorious international spy on the train, or even a not-so-notorious one, just a few students and pensioners, with the odd business traveller thrown in for good measure. There were no nuns, but there was a nurse, returning home after a visit to Manchester, where she had been to visit her fiancé and plan their wedding. There was also a man from the motor trade, returning from making a delivery. But–unlike David Hatch 40 years ago–I didn’t meet any drag queens, ravishingly beautiful girls in mysterious trouble, or monstrously overweight nymphomaniac noblewomen.
Near Wrawby Junction a rabbit ran by sidings full of abandoned tanker cars, then at Barnetby we passed a huge GBRf coal train. Soon after, the landscape was dusted white by the Singleton Birch chalk quarry, another testament to the area’s industrial past and present. Chalk gave way to scrubby pasture land and after a brief stop at the wayside halt of Habrough, we reached the industrial port of Grimsby Town. Most of the passengers disembarked here, leaving the train almost deserted for the last stage of its journey into Cleethorpes.
We trundled on through Grimsby Docks with its cargo terminal, passing boats in the harbour, then along a single track sandwiched between houses on one side and the sea wall on the other. We pulled into the terminus at Cleethorpes at 16:52, five minutes ahead of schedule. A little way before the station, someone had painted on a wall, in letters four feet high, the words HAPPY NOW? I was.
Cleethorpes is not a busy station. I had half an hour before my return train, so I took a little walk around the area. I quickly realized that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. There are few places more depressing to visit than an English seaside resort town out of season, when the weather is damp and drizzly, the sky is overcast and gloomy, the sea front is deserted and most of the attractions are closed.
Outside the station, the paint was peeling off the facade of the Fantasy World amusement arcade. A sign listed the attractions within: “Bingo – Toilets – Pool – Bowling – Snooker.” If toilets are considered an amusement second only to bingo, Cleethorpes really does have problems.
I bought a bag of stale candy floss and headed back to the station, where the 3:17 had now turned into the 17:28 to Manchester Airport. Setting off back towards Sheffield through the gathering dark, I was again confronted by the enigmatic question HAPPY NOW? Somehow, on leaving Cleethorpes, it seemed more relevant than before.