25 OCTOBER 1975, Page 14

Train freaks

Hunter Davies

The Great Trains Martin Page (Weidenfeld and Nicolson £5.50) The Great Railway Bazaar Paul Theroux (Ha.mish Hamilton £4.50) Train freaks are having a bumper year this year, what with all the stuff being churned out to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Stockton and Darlington and the Birth of Railways. Neither of these two excellent books has anything to do with the S. and D., but in their totally differing approaches, they're very much part of the 'romance of railways', a multi-million pound branch of the nostalgia industry. One has to feel sorry for poor old aeroplanes. How can they ever compete?

There are supposed to be two million train freaks in Britain and they're a gentle, harmless species who help old locos across the road and are always kind to signals in distress. They expect to be ridiculed, to be asked if they've collected any good numbers recently, so they shy away from outsiders. But if you show willing and a genuine interest in what concerns them, they will lie down, expose their pistons, let you feel them all over. Trying to cater for them, to produce something they will find pleasurable, is much harder. It's a love of steam which unites them all but in their different ways; they're all kinky, all the little specialities. Mr Page and Mr Theroux have come in from outside and tried to turn them on.

Mr Page should succeed because The Great Trains is bang in the main stream, a book full of lush railways cuttings, yummy pictures and finger-licking facts. The great trains he's concerned with are the luxury, trans continental trains of the last century, an era of transporting pleasures that began with the Orient Express in 1883 and captivated and encapsulated a glittering public for the next thirty years. They don't make such exotic creatures any more. Inter-City is positively neolithic.

The first Orient Express, when it set off for Constantinople, from Paris in October 1883, had every known luxury a traveller requires — silk covered walls, Turkish carpets on the floors, drawing rooms, servants' compartments, ladies' boudoirs, and a five course dinner cooked on board from entirely fresh materials. It must have been murder, on the Orient Express, if you ever wanted. to be sick. The Trans-Siberian, when it appeared in 1900, was even more luxurious with its own music room (complete with grand piano), hair salon, gymnasium, glass walled observation car, photographic dark room and a chapel. Le Train Bleu, a blue and gold express which went to the Riviera, in fact made the Riviera, wasn't as exotic or as mysterious as the long-haul Orient or Siberian expresses, but it made up for it in the quality of its passengers. Europe's high society, fading Royalty, social climbers, American millionaries, conmen and gamblers, all took the Blue Train to Monte Carlo. The train itself, dripping with state rooms and deep pile cocktail bars, became very much part of the social season.

Behind all the amazing trains were some extraordinary men. George Pullman, a carpenter's son, moved on from conning geld prospectors out of their savings by selling them stores at an enormous profit to building railway sleeping cars which, at first, nobody wanted. Then Lincoln was assassinated and Mr Pullman wangled one of his sleeping carriages on to Lincoln's funeral train to take the body from Washington to Springfield. On the way back, Pullman gave free rides to journalists and passing mayors, and got his sleeping cars such publicity that he very soon persuaded most American railroad companies to take them.

Mr Page expertly combines descriptions of the great trains with the personalities behind them, both the promoters and the passengers.

He keeps up the human interest, which is sadly lacking in the works of most professional railway writers, and has produced a book which every railway fan, the straight and the kinky, will be delighted to find in the stocking.

Mr Theroux with his The Great Railway Bazaar is trying something much more diffi cult. The 'romance of railways' for him is more in the abstract, the feeling of railway travel rather than facts about the trains themselves.

He's a novelist who from boyhood has never heard a train go by without wishing he was on it. He sees it as a perfect way to travel, with the passing world outside being just as much a bazaar as the passengers on board. So one September, very recently, he set out from Victoria and spent the next four months crossing Asia by train, arriving at Tokyo, then coming back across Russia by the Trans-Siberian.

He sets off, all terribly poetically, maintaining that the destinations don't matter. The journey is the goal. Personally, I think he needed his head felt, even thinking for one moment that a four month train ride would be a load of fun. Personally, I find that all that travel does is broaden the bum. But sitting back, watching from an arm chair, I found Mr Theroux's travels endlessly entertaining, though it would have helped his material if he'd done a little bit more railway research beforehand.

By a striking coincidence, Mr Theroux has produced 'a contemporary version of those trans-continental trains whose early and glorious years Mr Page so lavishly describes in his book. It would have given Theroux an extra dimension if he'd discovered some of the history of each train — and it would have made his experiences more meaningful to the outsider.

The Orient Express, for example, sounds a slum today, with no comfort, no drapes and not even a dining car. It would have amused Mr Theroux, and his readers, to know of the glory days. In fact, many of his journeys are passed in squalor, with copulating hippies and primitive, overcrowded compartments. Good grist of course for the novelist's eye, and this is very much a fiction writer's account of a journey — with its strength in the thoughts and the reflections, the glimpses of passing people. He tries hard to build up suspense, manipulating his imagination on the people he meets, but he has really very little to go on.

The main fascination of the book is watching Mr Theroux as he keeps his narrative flowing, avoiding, if only just, the temptation to improve on reality. Strict railway fans won't thank you for the book, as there's not even an engine number or a photo to gloat over, but I suppose that all fans of Mr Theroux will be delighted by this journey round himself.