Nostalgia for a Young Persons' Railcard

Jason Rogers holding his Young Person's Railcard Image copyright Jason Rogers

The Young Persons' Railcard - originally the Student Railcard but today known as the 16-25 Railcard - is 40 years old. Is it a rite of passage, asks Tom de Castella.

You got good at dividing by three. And radiating ennui while dressed in a trenchcoat waiting for the delayed service to Bristol Temple Meads.

The Student Railcard was launched some time in 1974. No-one knows exactly when but it seems to have been rolled out widely in October of that year. For the last 25 years, the selling point has been the same - a third off your ticket. Before that it was up to 50%. Eligibility waxed and waned. At the start it was available only to people in full time education. This was expanded to nurses, part-time students and young people down to age 14. In October 1982 it was renamed the Young Persons Railcard. The age range rose to 16-23 and full-time mature students were included. In 1994 it was blandly christened the 16-25 Railcard.

The Student Railcard supposedly came into being after meetings between the National Union of Students and British Rail. The fact that the NUS today seems barely cognisant of its role, and BR no longer exists, is somehow fitting. The card has little of the Proustian pull of other student staples. It was a useful money off tool at a time when few students owned cars and train was considerably more expensive than coach. Andrew Martin, author of Belles and Whistles: Five journeys through time on Britain's trains, says it has never become a rail rite of passage. That honour goes to InterRail - "the grand tour of the 18th Century aristocracy for the modern age".

Image copyright Getty Images

And yet, for a teenager growing up in the 1980s it had a certain charm. You weren't a child but a young person. Getting your hands on that pitted blue wallet containing a "YP card" and mugshot photo - long greasy hair, rabbit in headlights expression, Nirvana T-shirt all standard issue (apologies to reminiscers of other eras) - was a passport to anywhere. Well Lincoln Central.

It's unlikely today's 16-25 Railcard causes much excitement for young people. Travel horizons no longer end at Dover Priory. And trains have changed. When the Student Railcard arrived they had a seedy romance but the network was still in shock from Dr Beeching's axe. In 2014 trains are "purely utilitarian" and carry more people than at any time since the 1920s, Martin says. Perhaps the card is like good eyesight - you only truly appreciate it when it's gone. There's that moment of indignation at 26 when you have to pay full fare. And the implication that, although not exactly past it, you are too old to hang around waiting rooms pretending to read L'Etranger.

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