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THE UNIQUELY English parly trains, short for parliamentary trains, say so much about this wonderful country. Today, let’s celebrate their history and a link with the gentle humor of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann.
English parly trains have also gained the “ghost trains” nickname because of their ephemeral nature today. There’s even a website, Parliamentary Ghost Stations for enthusiasts who collect these British rail oddities. What a great way to organize a party train for oneself and friends!
Parliamentary trains were once rather more practical, though. In the beginning of British train travel, open passenger cars attached to freight trains provided the most basic transportation. But Her Majesty’s government came to the rescue of poor folk traveling from village to factory sweatshop.
Britain’s 1844 Railways Regulation Act guaranteed “the provision of at least one train a day each way at a speed of not less than 12 miles an hour including stops, which were to be made at all stations, and of carriages protected from the weather and provided with seats; for all which luxuries not more than a penny a mile might be charged.”
These Parliamentary trains even earned a reference in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Mikado, 1885. In the Mikado’s “punishments match the crimes” patter, he sings, “The idiot who, in railway carriages/Scribbles on window-panes./We only suffer/To ride on a buffer/On Parliamentary trains.”
The “buffer” was part of the coupling hardware between train carriages. Riding one was the Brit version of an American hobo “riding the rods.”
Fast forward to 1963 (though I’ve been advised this term is inappropriate when discussing British rail service). By then nationalized, British Railways produced a report proposing significant cuts to rail service. Parliament got involved again with an associated Transportation Act that detailed the procedures that had to be followed in any elimination of a route.
So complex were these procedures that British Railways decided it was simply easier to reduce service to an absolute minimum, rather than cancel it: Run the trains at inconvenient times of day, in one direction only, perhaps only one train a week.
Thus the resurrection of the term parliamentary trains, aka ghost trains.
There’s an extensive list of today’s parliamentary trains at Wikipedia. Here are several favorites, with my bracketed comments.
London Liverpool Street at 0531 [i.e. 5:31 in the morning!] to Enfield Town via South Tottenham (although not stopping there), Saturdays only, no return. [Thinking of sleeping-in this weekend?]
South Ruislip at 1057 to London Paddington, return 1136 to West Ruislip, weekdays only. [This one is run primarily to keep drivers familiar with the route, on the off chance that their usual Marylebone terminal isn’t available.]
One train every Saturday is scheduled to call at Bordesley. However, the station remains open for use when the Birmingham City Football Club has a home game. [No train, mind; just the station.]
Gillingham at 0456 to Sheerness-on-Sea, weekdays only. Return at 2132 [9:32 p.m.] using the Sittingbourne Western Junction curve. [I hope your extended stay at Sheerness-on-Sea was pleasurable, m’lord.]
These wonderful station names remind me of my favorite duo of musical satire, the late Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. One of their most touching pieces laments the passing of Britain’s “slow trains,” local service sharing the rails with city expresses. Here’s an opportunity to share their nostalgia. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016