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Michael Portillo on 3 Train Journeys That are Very Special to Him

In his new book Greatest British Railway Journeys Michael Portillo reveals his memories of childhood rail journeys and applauds the local community for saving the Settle to Carlisle Railway in the 1980s.

On board the ‘Starlight Express’

A young Michael loved seeing the Forth Bridge from the ‘Starlight Express’

Some of the first British railway journeys we filmed for the show were nostalgic for me. My mother’s father John Blyth lived in Kirkcaldy. My mother Cora would take me and my brothers to visit her parents. The slow train we took from London overnight while sitting bolt upright was dubbed the ‘Starlight Express’. Shortly before reaching Kirkaldy the train crossed the Forth Bridge . To my young eyes, it was the most magnificent piece of engineering and the passage of time has not lessened my sense of awe.

Saving the Settle to Carlisle Railway

Michael Portillo Isle of Wight
The Settle-Carlisle train route was saved in the 1980s

My feeling of nostalgia for the Settle to Carlisle Railway is of a different sort. When I became transport minister in 1988 British Rail had applied to close the line to save money and avoid expensive repairs to the viaduct. I was keen to refuse permission because I valued the railway’s heritage so much. Luckily the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line proved to be a formidable force. They alerted rail lovers about the imminent closure of the line and passenger numbers rose steeply. An engineer found a way to cut two-thirds from the bill for the viaduct too so I was able to sign the refusal of closure. When I filmed the line for">Greatest British Railway Journeys: Celebrating the greatest journeys from the BBC's beloved railway travel seriesGreat British Railway Journeys I felt great personal joy because the line had survived.

Memories of the Isle of Wight Train

Michael Portillo Isle of Wight
Michael loved travelling on the old Isle of Wight trains

Another route that evokes memories for me is the stretch on the Isle of Wight from Ryde to Shanklin. When I travelled on it during the summer holidays it went on through the Boniface Down Tunnel to Ventnor where the compartment filled with smoke from the locomotive. Whenever I encounter that smell today it carries me directly back to my childhood. The service today is operated by superannuated London Underground stock. It’s not the same but I love the fact that the Island line remains highly quirky.

Find more exciting railway stories in Michael Portillo ‘s latest book, Greatest British Railway Journeys, Headline Publishing, £14.70,

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