When I moved to Harringay in north London eight years ago, its rail connections were key to the appeal. Piccadilly line, Victoria line, Overground, Great Northern, buses coming out of your ears: N4 had it all.
If anything, this has been even handier in the age of Covid. Our three-year-old is a dedicated train fan, and taking a Thermos to Harringay station (eight tracks, no barriers, all outdoors) became a near-daily lockdown outing. So, just as words like “pandemic” entered his lexicon a bit quicker than expected, so too did Azuma and East Coast, Grand Central and Hull Trains, Great Northern and Thameslink.
These trains, mostly non-stoppers, rattle down to Moorgate or King’s Cross or up along the East Coast mainline, conveying excitement and reassurance more than passengers. Sometimes a driver will hoot a welcome as they go by; occasionally, a mystery arrives: strange freight rumbling round the sidings, a lost Southern carriage on the Hornsey flyover, one day even the royal train engine acting fishy on the Overground fork.
It’s been a lifeline. In those eerie early days of lockdown, the noise on the platforms broke the silence and muted the inner panic: track buzzing in anticipation, then that great seashore roar. The more mundane sounds were comforting, too: squeaks and beeps, doors wheezing open.
Sometimes we’d head instead for Alexandra Palace, or Harringay Green Lanes, or East Finchley. In Medway with my mother, we’d set up camp at Strood, Rainham, Rochester and, best of all, Cuxton – level-crossing, signal box, sudden locomotives.
But we have not, with one exception, actually been on a train in five months. I bought a secondhand car just before the shops shut in March – my first time behind the wheel since passing my test a year earlier – and so driving became our exclusive means of getting about.
And just as you don’t quite register until you become a driver how dangerous it is, that your life depends on you and multiple others not losing focus for a second, I also hadn’t quite twigged how isolating it is.
That’s the point, of course: to cocoon you from infection. But it also amplifies all the negative aspects of being in a bubble. Interaction with fellow travellers is fleeting at best, and hostile as standard. You swear and are sworn at. You tut and tense and dismiss. People blur into a mass of incompetent rotters out to thwart your progress. You could go anywhere, fast. The world ought to be your oyster. And so your sense of your own importance and agency within it inflates.
The worst effect of people like me – those with the luxury of choice – now abandoning public transport is, of course, environmental. There’s also likely to be a more immediate impact on mortality. Just as April’s improvements in air quality have been obliterated, so it’s hard not to anticipate a spike in road accidents over the summer, following spring’s record low.
Yet the loss to society of the richness of interaction public transport affords is also significant. Riding buses and trains and being at stations was how I used to see the world, in every way. I grew up in a family without a car, and days were plotted around timetables and route maps, special ticket deals and off-peak loopholes – all part of the fun, even when they went wrong. Your horizons were expanded by the people you’d meet as well as the places you’d see, people you could freely speak to, no matter how different their background. Some of my son’s most memorable encounters have been with ticket inspectors and random fellow travellers. This is now off limits.
The one train we did go on recently was for tourists: the North Norfolk Railway, during a holiday last month. It was fantastic and sad all at once. We risked it because it was the first day that it had reopened for service, the compartments were completely separate and, most of all, you could open the window properly.
The key to making all trains safer in the short-term is, plainly, ventilation. Even planes seem to do better when it comes to efficient fresh air circulation. Yet a reintroduction of windows which open on contemporary rolling stock does not appear to be on the agenda. Likewise, close observance of official policy and advice.
Passengers need urgent clarification about the risks of travelling by train. Parents need to know why it’s fine for children to be exempt from wearing facemasks, if a failure to do so for adults endangers them and everyone else around. These issues are important for everyone; they are essential for those who have no option but to use a transport system that, for the past five months, the government has encouraged us to see as a very last resort.
The fate of the North Norfolk Railway seemed to have been sealed by Beeching nearly 60 years ago. Earlier this year, 50 bids to reopen were made to the government by such lines. It’s hard to imagine that will now happen. Rather, it’s easy to foresee a future in which coronavirus results in a huge slew of new closures. That means not only further destruction to a rail network that, for all its faults, is still a marvel, but an ever more atomised society.
That steam train trip in July will last us for a bit. And it did trigger in my son a new interest – in disused railways. So we’ve gone to see the crumbled platforms at the abandoned Crouch End station, the cracked freight lines near Snodland, Kent, and found the water tower that’s all that remains of the steam terminus at Allhallows: massive, majestic and unmarked in the middle of a mobile home park.
Harringay station can sometimes feel like a ruin already, with its ghost posters for musicals long closed, the gulls and the buddleia. I hope it’s a long time until it actually becomes one.
• Catherine Shoard is the Guardian’s film editor