Northside - Andrew Martin finds trains have lost their romance

Time has tarnished the romance of a Great North-Eastern Railway journey

To York on the east coast main line, which is 150 years old around now. I board the train on 18/01/03, and immediately spot a note on a toilet door reading: "Toilet choked 24/12/02". I wouldn't mind, but this is supposed to be the Great North-Eastern Railway, the present operating company having amalgamated the names of the Great Northern (1847-1923) and the London and North-Eastern Railway (1923-46).

But GNER provides a good service, I must admit. On my roughly bimonthly trips up north, even the Tannoy announcements of the "on-board team" can't interrupt my happy reverie. Indeed, the announcements don't mean anything, even to the speakers. They're just meaningless, mindless noise, and this time I swear the man says: "Train safety information has been disdained throughout the train for your intention."

We pull out of King's Cross and into Copenhagen Tunnel. The dead bodies in The Ladykillers are chucked off the top of this on to the coal waggons that the north used to send down to London, helping fund the lives of those who slagged off the provinces.

We pull past Welwyn Garden City, where as a child I wanted to live, because I liked the name and, oddly enough, because Shredded Wheat was manufactured there. (Still is.) On to Stevenage, where I alighted in 1979 to see Keith Richards and the Stones' spin-off band, the New Barbarians, at the Knebworth Festival. Playing alongside Keith was the harmonica genius Sugar Blue, who the Stones found busking on the Paris Metro . . . So everything comes back to trains, you see.

Now we're in to a sleepy, featureless void otherwise known as Biggleswade. We fly past the home of St Neots Town FC, the most admirably modest of football grounds in that it seems to have no space for spectators at all - and before long we're in Peterborough. The good thing about Peterborough station is that you can sometimes see a steam loco on the adjacent Nene Valley Railway; the bad thing is everything else.

In particular, there's a corrugated metal footbridge that looks like a temporary toilet suspended above the tracks. Note to the mayor of Peterborough: the demolition of this bridge would do more good for your city than a hundred commercials boasting of "the Peterborough Effect".

Between Peterborough and Grantham, I look out for the sign recording that Mallard, the steam engine, set a speed record of 126mph in 1938. This has always been a fast line, but the max speed of the engines today is . . . wait for it . . . 125mph.

After Newark Northgate station, there's a pig farm that looks like the First World War, and then it's on to Retford. A well-known humourist, who used to live in York, once wrote a funny account of being stuck on a train at Retford. He was quite rude about the place, but my friend who was at the Courtauld says it has very beautiful brickwork.

Shortly afterwards we are, as the Tannoy tyrants inexplicably say, "arriving into Doncaster". Now Doncaster really is boring, and in the sidings near the station a car is parked among the waggons: a fly in the ointment. We go past some farms - I do wish farmers wouldn't put their straw in bin bags - and then the two power stations, Drax to the west and Eggborough to the east. There is so much steam coming out of their cooling towers that they look like cloud factories.

York used to be heralded, for me, by a ruined windmill in a field, and a wooden cut-out alongside the tracks of a man carrying a ladder - some sort of advert for a hardware store. The man's gone now, blown over no doubt by a 125mph train, so only the ruined mill remains.

And York itself, I'm glad to say.