Interview with Michael Williams, author

13 September 2021

Michael Williams is the best-selling author of On the Slow Train, On the Slow Train Again, Steaming to Victory and The Trains Now Departed and our guest in our latest Rail Chatter interviews.

Michael is a journalist and academic – writing, broadcasting and blogging on transport, society, the media and other issues of the day for the national media and many other outlets, including the Independent, the Independent on Sunday, the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian the New Statesman, the Tablet, the History Channel, as well as the specialist and business press.

Michael is also a leading travel writer, reporting on journeys around the world for a variety of publications. In his academic role, he is co-editor and author of the book The Future of Quality News Journalism.

Formerly, he was deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday, executive editor of The Independent and head of news and features at the Sunday Times. Previously he was a member of the home news staff of The Times in London.

In addition, Michael Williams is chairman of the Springdene Care Homes group in London and external examiner in the School of Media and Communication at Goldsmiths University, London. He lives with his family in Camden Town, London.

Interview by Emily Roberts

Michael it is a real joy to get this chance to chat with you. Normally we're on trains together, but such is the world right now we've not had that pleasure. When was the last time you actually travelled by train in Britain?

I travelled by train from London to Stoke-on-Trent last month to have lunch with my son at university in Keele. It was a delightful trip on an early summer's day in the sunshine. The countryside was looking lovely. I'm off at the weekend to Totnes to visit lovely South Devon for a holiday. There's the historic South Devon steam railway nearby, too.

That's one of the beauties of rail travel isn't it, sitting back and watching the world go by. Even better when we have good weather. Is that why you prefer travelling by train?

On the main line, it is speed, comfort and the ability to enjoy the countryside through the windows. On branch lines, it is the gentle pace of travel and then opportunity to meet interesting strangers - as well as view beautiful scenery, of course.

Train crossing Clapham Viaduct along the Bentham Line. Yorkshire & North East UK
Bentham Line

Any particular branch lines an absolute must-travel?

Around the branch line network, there are several hidden gems. These are my favourites - two in spectacular northern England and the other in the beautiful West Country.

The Bentham Line, running through the Pennines from Morecambe to Leeds is the lesser-known neighbour of the famous Settle and Carlisle line, but just as sensational in its own way passing through some fabulous landscapes. For coastal views there is little to beat the Cumbrian Coast Line, wending it's way from Barrow to Carlisle. Taking this quaint route is like a step back in time.

The Looe Valley Line in Cornwall is less well known than some other West Country branches, but the line, running from Liskeard to the tiny fishing port of Looe, is unbeatable for charm and tranquillity.

Earliest memory? Do you remember your first trip on a train?

My first trip by train was on an old-fashioned bucket-and-spade excursion to Southend-on-Sea. I remember the hiss of the steam engine, the cry of the gulls and the whiff of the vinegar on fish and chips. I was probably about six.

I'm going to really put you on the spot now... have you a favourite journey in Britain?

My favourite train journey of all is the West Highland sleeper, known as the 'Deerstalker Express', from London to Fort William You join the train amid the hubbub of the Euston Road and wake up in the morning with beautiful stags peering through the window.

And your favourite seat?

Forward, with a window seat – and ideally a table for my notebook.

Days out by rail along the Cumbrian Coast Line
Cumbrian Coast

Ahh yes, I imagine your pen and notebook goes everywhere! You've written about your rail travels in Britain often. This year marks the 10th anniversary since On The Slow Train: Twelve Great British Railway Journeys first published. I love that it takes the reader on the 'slow train to another era'. Have you got any bucket-list trips still to make?

In my years as a railway writer, I have travelled on most lines in Britain, but I can't wait to ride on the new Crossrail under the heart of London when it eventually opens. It is a marvel of engineering.

What are you writing about currently?

My latest book is 'The Trains Now Departed: Sixteen excursions into the lost delights of Britain's railways', published by Arrow Books. It tells the stories of some of the most fascinating lost trains of Britain, I recount stories of the pioneers who built the tracks, the yarns of the men and women who operated them and the colourful trains that ran on them. It is a journey into the soul of our railways, summoning up a magic which, although mired in time, is fortunately not lost for ever.

What a perfect way to end our chat! I hope I'll be seeing you on the rails again soon Michael but in the meantime have you any advice to help Brits get back on track and exploring by rail?

Get an All-Line Rail Rover for a week and you can travel the length and breadth of Britain's railways. It's surprisingly good value. There are many other local rail rovers, which are great value, too.

To know more about Michael's career and works, you can visit his website or view his books here.

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