Tim Dunn interview: ‘Stations are places of massive emotion’

Station master: Tim Dunn at London Waterloo station
Station master: Tim Dunn at London Waterloo station - Rii Schroer

Tim Dunn has measured out his life with train stations. There is Ruislip, at which his grandparents, Marjorie and Thomas, met, travelling to their respective schools on the Metropolitan line in their early teens in the 1930s. (From the age of seven, their grandson would celebrate each birthday by riding in the cab of the Metropolitan No1 steam loco­motive from the world’s first underground railway.)

Then there is Exeter train station, where Dunn – a railway historian and television presenter with a ­Tiggerish excitement for his subject – came to terms with his sexuality while scanning the shelves of WH Smith in the early 2000s.

“I remember standing there and I wanted to buy Attitude magazine – it’s obviously got a topless bloke on the front of it – and Steam Railway. I was thinking, as a young student unsure of himself, do I walk out of here with Attitude on the outside and hide the train magazine? Or do I hide my Attitude inside Steam Railway? Which one am I less ashamed about?”

The 43-year-old chuckles at the memory. “That was probably a formative moment.” In the end, he decided, “They can think what they like.”

Not only has Dunn gone on to write for Steam Railway (and be hailed by Attitude as a “hot geek”), he also hosts Transport for London’s podcast, is a history consultant for the eagerly awaited Great British Railways project, and presents Secrets of the London Under­ground, one of the most-watched programmes on the UKTV channel Yesterday. Its fourth series starts next month. On camera, he displays a genuine delight as he is given the keys to unseen corners of the Tube, from dusty broom cupboards to long-abandoned stations and high-security command centres.

“It is work,” he insists, not all that convincingly, over a cappuccino on the top floor of London’s Royal Fes­t­i­val Hall. “You have to remind your­self when you’re there sometimes, we’re here to do a job. It’s not to run around the place just going, ‘Wow! Look at that! That’s amazing!’”

Dunn in Secrets of the London Underground
Dunn has presented Secrets of the London Underground since 2021 - UKTV

The production team have the expertise of the London Transport Museum at their fingertips (his ­co-host is the historian Siddy Holloway, who helped develop its Hidden London tours). But Dunn still turns up at the launch meeting of every series with his own exhaustive list of ideas. Up there this time was the Ruislip maintenance depot and the police cells at Paddington. But he is just as thrilled at the access that Transport for London now entrusts to him to its people, including a train driver who has become a ­TikTok star.

Dunn himself pitched the idea for The Architecture the Railways Built, of which this series is a spin-off. He was keen to do a show not “just dealing with a mini crisis – someone’s been sick on platform 4”, but one with network-wide access to tell the story of how we have been shaped by the power of “twin strips of steel uniting one community with another”. Before working on television, he did a geography degree, worked in marketing, and became a trustee of the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum and the Miniature Railway Museum Trust.

“I often say that a railway station is a portal,” he enthuses. “If you’re living in a town, it is still the portal to the rest of the world, it is your interdimensional way of travelling. So they’re places of massive emotion. You see tears at railway stations, you see joy, you see ­rem­i­nis­cence, you see heritage and you see hope.” At one point during our chat, Dunn himself is on the verge of tears – talking about the 1943 Bethnal Green Tube disaster, which saw 173 ­people crushed to death on the steps of an air-raid shelter.

His brain appears to work at the speed of a steam locomotive, with every question prompting umpteen fascinating tangents. “What was the question again, sorry?” he asks at one point; at another, he says, “I’ve gone off topic massively, haven’t I?”

The Sir John Betjeman statue at St Pancras station
The Sir John Betjeman statue at the glorious St Pancras station - Historic England

When I ask which thing he would like to bring back from the “golden age” of railway travel, he gives me a couple of mini lectures ruminating on which golden age I might be talking about. “Is it for the investors? In which case you’re looking at pre-railway mania back in the 1840s. Enthusiasts might say it was definitely the 1920s and 1930s – that was the peak of some of the design. But was that the golden age..? It was costing a fortune, railways were on their knees.”

I wonder whether Dunn is cap­able of having a bad train journey – even if he had paid through the nose for a ticket that offered a delayed departure, no seat and ­broken lavatories. “I’m lucky that I’ve maybe got a bit more of an insight than the average person as to why those things are happening,” he says. “If you look back at history, there were always delays. And, actually, the railway we’re running right now is more complex and busier than it ever was.”

Dunn – who in 2016 co-presented BBC Four’s Trainspotting Live – says that growing up with a stammer in Buckinghamshire, he could never have dreamt he would end up as a TV star. Even now, it seems it has not quite sunk in. He is so nervous about this interview that he skipped breakfast and appears to have done at least as much research on me as I have on him. “I’m amazed people are interested in what I have to say,” he opens, “because it’s just me.” And he is perplexed when he hears himself being referred to by producers as “the talent”, exclaiming, “I’m the least talented person in the entire crew.”

When we discuss his childhood, he muses, “I’m trying to analyse, how did I end up in this bizarre position – this chap with his whole life frankly governed by railways?” It turns out it started with an ­inheritance from his late grand­father, Mick, when he was about three – “literally hundreds” of tomes about trains.

“It’s because those books were so beautiful and interesting. As a kid, I learnt about the world through railways, so to me the whole world is just joined up by railway lines. Every­thing can be explained to me via the transit of goods and the design of engines and the passenger experience.”

Train enthusiast Dunn, 43, at Waterloo Station
Train enthusiast Dunn, 43, at Waterloo Station - Rii Schroer

He remembers barely being teased about it at school or at home: “My parents celebrated it. They never said, ‘Don’t be silly, Tim.’ ‘Stop talking about trains, Tim.’” His dad, Richard, worked for British Rail as a surveyor, valuing buildings to sell off. His mum, Judith, was a window dresser at DH Evans on Oxford Street in London.

But I do not fully get the measure of the man until I ask what memorabilia he has acquired.“The most ridiculous thing is probably a 60ft-long train that I’ve got in storage,” he replies. I assume it must be some kind of model. I’m wrong. “It is an InterCity 125 high-speed train from the 1970s that needs restoration. You can whizz around the park in it.”

What on earth does he plan to do with it? “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “It’s one of those things, like the ­Eiffel Tower I’ve got in my parents’ back garden that’s 30ft tall. I was told it was 9ft tall, but when I got there it was nine metres. I had to go back with a cherry picker and spend three days demolishing it.” It is waiting for the day he moves out of the Zone 1 flat he shares with his partner, David, an architectural historian, and gets his own back yard.

And that’s not all. “Thorpe Park was demolishing its model village and had a charity auction, and I thought I’d bought Nelson’s Column. They said, well, actually, we’ve got the Eiffel Tower as well.” He goes on, “We got bits of the Pont du Gard… I’ve got this model village from the Midlands in ­storage…” Then, Dunn checks himself: “I try not to hoard things, other­wise you can get too wrapped up in this world.”

Thankfully – at least for the millions of fans of his television shows – that railway bridge was crossed a long time ago.

Series four of Secrets of the London Underground starts on July 2 on Yesterday and UKTV Play