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Big Issue in The North

Blood on the tracks by Iain Aitch

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 railway system

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.

photo: Cathy Ward

All content copyright © 2012 Iain Aitch


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