As Rail Regulator Tom Winsor
tells Network Rail it has to cut spending by £2bn a year by
postponing track improvements between the north-west and Scotland
we examine an ordinary journey on an ordinary day on an extraordinary
I'm on the train. This much I know as we are just five minutes
out of Paddington and three of my fellow passengers have already
checked in with the spouse or the boss to confirm that they are
indeed sat down with a plastic cup of weak coffee roughly the temperature
of the earth's core.
There is also the tell-tale stench of the All Day Breakfast Bap,
a snack that takes its name from the time it will take the rest
of us to rid our clothes and nasal passages of its insidious aroma
rather than its 24-hour availability. As everyone knows, the buffet
car will close exactly at the point that you crack and decide to
hit the Stella.
But the railway clichés of blabbing mobile users and bad
food are way down the list of worries for anyone who tries to get
around the UK by rail on a regular basis. And I should know, I spent
last summer traversing our rail network to research my book about
the English at leisure.
Sure, I was impressed by the huge spidery sprawl of branch lines
and the occasional seat that just seemed just too spacious, but
mostly I was frustrated by missed connections, bad information and
extortionate ticket prices. I endured air-free replacement bus services,
brain dead ticket clerks and a national telephone enquiry service
that explained station timetables are sometimes wrong “to
make it simpler”.
One hour in to my journey and we are already running late. This
is down to our driver letting a slower, stopping service cross in
front of us at the last station, the rail equivalent of hitting
the brakes in a country lane to let out a tractor.
Still, at least I can console myself with the knowledge that I have
avoided the Family Carriage, which is a seasonal hell stuffed to
the gills with flatulent ten-year-olds eating cheesy puffs and playing
GameBoys at full blast. Oddly there is no Adults Only Carriage,
though this is something of a relief as it conjures up images of
some kind of on-board swingers' club and I really don't
want to see any of my fellow passengers naked. Especially that guy
eating the All Day Breakfast Bap.
Before boarding the train I checked and double-checked the small
print on my ticket, having previously been sold ones that were not
actually valid for travel (which begs the question, what were they
valid for – propping up wobbly table legs?). All seemed in
order until the ticket inspector came round and it could not be
found anywhere. I felt like an embarrassed 14-year-old again, doing
the 'pretend I've lost me ticket' shuffle. 'I
did have one, honest,' I bleat. But thankfully the inspector
is no jobsworth and lets me off with a cheery, 'Don't
worry about it, mate'.
He is obviously from the old school of railwaymen, who would share
a bar of chocolate or the last of their Old Holborn with you if
you were stuck waiting for the milk train after a night out.
The old school are few and far between now, though, with privatisation
and casualisation meaning that you can never find anyone to ask
“Which platform, what time and how late?”. Under British
Rail you could always find the odd guard at repose amidst a fug
of smoke in a cubby-hole, but now there is only the information
desk (usually a long-vacant table that is used as a makeshift bin
by passengers) or management.
Having crossed the threshold of the station manager's office
at Darlington station I recommend that you stick with asking your
fellow passenger, even if they are a French exchange student who
is as lost as you are. It must be better than being told to catch
a train that left thirty minutes ago by the big cheese as a junior
member of staff sniggers behind his back.
Next up from my train's on-board tannoy comes the dread phrase
'signal failure'. As if by magic my fellow passengers
and I come together as one and show our fury at yet more delays,
by letting out a collective sigh.
Pretty soon we are underway again, relieved that it wasn't
'suspect track', the delightfully euphemistic 'passenger
action', 'bridge bash' or any of the other precursors
to travel doom I discovered last summer. All or any of these could
have lead to the use of the use of that most dread of new rail verbs
– we could have been 'detrained' and left to rot
at Tiverton Parkway.
I finally reach my destination a miserable twenty-five minutes late.
It could have, and has been, far worse and around half-an-hour of
tardiness seems pretty much par for the course in my experience.
All very well when you are loafing around the country in search
of your fellow countrymen going mad in the midday sun, but if I
had to commute by train every day I am sure I would have taken 'passenger
action' a long time ago.