Penzance station on a Thursday evening is a quiet place. In platform 3, a Sprinter sits silently at the buffer stops, lights off and engine powered down, waiting for the next morning’s rush hour (or what passes for it at the extreme southern end of Britain’s rail network). In the ticket office, only one of the four windows is nominally open, occupied by an extremely bored-looking booking clerk. Eventually even he gives up and pulls down his Position Closed blind.
Trains are few and far between at this time of night, but there is a service for Plymouth due to depart soon. A train arrives but the guard doesn’t unlock the doors immediately, instead disappearing into the mess room for a well-earned cuppa. The handful of intending passengers are forced to wait on the platform. They are an unsavoury bunch: among their number I notice an unwashed man with an aggressive-looking dog in tow and a young couple who have clearly had too much to drink.
The driver and guard finally return and release the doors for the grateful passengers. Within a few minutes the diesel engine revs up and the train disappears into the night. This causes some chagrin to a teenage boy and girl who arrived at the station just as the train was leaving. They are convinced that the timetable shows a different departure time and spend some time arguing with the point with the train dispatcher. Eventually they concede and disappear – no doubt to find somewhere comfortable to wait: the next train to Plymouth leaves two hours later.
On another platform, a few people are milling around. They are waiting for the late evening arrival from London, which left the capital some five-and-a-half hours earlier. The HST duly pulls in. Its journey has taken it through inner-city grime and dreary commuter towns; it must be a joy to finally reach open countryside, where the driver can open the throttle and speed along the tracks for mile after mile. Upon reaching the southwest, the train will have slowed down again, giving passengers a chance to appreciate the scenery flicking past their windows. Then, every twenty miles or so, there has been a stop at one of the characterful stations that make Devon and Cornwall’s railways such a pleasure, before it finally reached here, its final destination, some 300 miles away from where it started. An epic journey, but just another day’s work for the pinnacle of British Rail train design.
On the platform, a plethora of mini-reunions take place. A daughter runs up to hug her father; a middle-aged woman gratefully hands over her oversized suitcases to her husband. A man in his early twenties proffers a bouquet of flowers to his sweetheart. The station briefly bustles as people stream out in search of onward transport.
The alighting passengers, in their eagerness, have neglected to close the train doors behind them. The guard walks along the train slamming them shut. With all doors secure, the platform staff signal “right away”. The InterCity 125 reverses out of the station and heads for the nearby depot where it will be serviced and refuelled. Tomorrow morning it will head back to Paddington and the whole cycle will begin again.
The roar of the powerful diesel engines recedes into the distance, and the station falls silent once more. The Cornish rail network is undoubtedly beginning to wind down for the night. However, there are two or three trains left on the departure board and I am here to catch one of them: the 2145 to London Paddington, better known as the Night Riviera Sleeper.
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