Last weekend fate decreed I take a journey on a railway train. I have an ambivalent relationship with railway trains.
On the one hand, I cannot be unmoved by the sight of a rushing beast as it pounds across an open landscape; a silver streak, as determined as a serpent in pursuit of unseen prey. Although never one of that sad, damp cluster of youths who gathered for hours of waiting on platforms with notebooks and pencils numbly clutched for a glimpse of the ‘Sir Nigel Gresley’, I admit steam locomotives inspired awe in me. And the power that moved so many to anorak-dom is, to some extent, with me still. Gone are the smoking demons with their cannonades of fiery breath, but the size is still there, the speed burgeons; and we are all, in some degree, impressed by speed, aren’t we?
There is another hand, though. I am rarely a passenger now. Those platforms and the icy blast of a north-westerly in the first light of morning or the last tick of the midnight clock have lost their charm. So has the companionship that comes with a shared cause, the excitement of spotting a roaring, steam-belching Standard Class 9F hauling wagons in an endless caravan through Exeter St. David’s or a Princess Class breathlessly trundling the more usual 12 carriages into position on platform 5. Gone are the days. The loudest sound this morning is the scream of protest from my credit card as I pay my fare. Trains all look alike these days – or they do, at least, to me.
The ruthless efficiency of modern rail travel should be anathema to one whose roots are so firmly planted in the steam age: should be, but not. There is something astounding about the 12:14 to Plymouth which actually arrives at 12:14; something even more profoundly impressive about the smooth, quiet comfort of the journey – mobile phones and tablets notwithstanding. I enjoy the efficiency, but equally I am quietly gratified when something goes just a little bit wrong.
Oh yes, it still happens!
Back to the weekend and myself, settling down to a comfortable transition from York to Manchester Piccadilly on a train that calls itself royally the ‘Trans-Pennine Express’, which is really a collection of carriage units fused together – a sort of multi-bendy-bus on rails. With everything so linked, there is an element of shared experience that can surprise. And surprise it did.
Our departure was a little delayed. The train’s announcer was extremely apologetic and very precise. “As those passengers who have ridden with us from Scarborough will be aware, a passenger was taken ill, requiring the train’s toilets (note the plural) to be cleaned.”
Amusement, at first. Sardonic smiles induced by excess detail. Did we really need to know?
“Because of this, passengers who need our facilities are requested to only use the toilet in Carriage B. We apologise once again for this inconvenience.”
So the train waited a little longer at York, while I watched earnest staff with cleaning apparatus (no, no full body suits) bustling back and forth. I also wondered, assuming the train would have at least five or six (let’s use gentle language) rest rooms, just how peripatetic our erstwhile sickly passenger had managed to be? In the throes of a dose of the trots, just how much trotting can actually be involved?
Finally the train moved. The engines gave their initial burst of energy. The air conditioning kicked in. Remember my observation about closely linked carriage units? If we needed any more immediate reminder of this poor passenger’s misfortune it was delivered to us, pungently, by courtesy of the aircon. It was an aroma swift to spread, intense, and slow to disperse. I shall remember it for a while yet. So will everyone who rode that train. We arrived at my destination on time, whereupon the announcer advised everybody who wanted to travel on to change to another train that was lined up and waiting for them because “This unit really has to be taken to the depot for maintenance.” The only entertainment that remained was in relaying that message to a very friendly but equally resolute family of travellers from overseas who wanted to stay with the train they assumed would take them on to Manchester Airport. The problem was one of communication. No-one could work out what language they spoke.
So I reached my journey’s end, reflecting that no matter how effective the tools, the railway system of now is as vulnerable, in its way, to disruption as ever it was. Where the mass transportation of people is concerned, it always will be. Technology may provide the key to infallibility, but someone, somewhere will always be available to tap the wrong key.
The attraction – yes the attraction – of railway travel in the past may have been lent the rose tinted lens of time, but I recall it with some pleasure. Despite the absence of ‘Sir Nigel Gresley’ whenever I was around, smoky old carriages pushed by a sad tank engine , as far from the big blue A4 as the mutt chewing chicken bones from our dustbin is removed from Crufts’ triumphant West Highland Terrier, held romance for me.
The British temperament, you see, is not equipped to deal with the open-plan nature of modern transport. Our railway history was writ in conveyances made up of compartments – partitions and doors to defend us from the public gaze. We might be forced to share our seating space with six or seven fellow travellers, but we would never be required to speak to them. We would be content to sit on seats stuffed with horsehair by smoky windows that opened wide enough to wave a brolly at a reticent porter, as long as we could complete the Times crossword before we reached Waterloo. There would be no inconvenient air-conditioning smells, nor would passengers be confined to only one rest room. There was no air conditioning, and if there was a communication corridor (which there was, sometimes) each carriage would have facilities – and sometimes they worked.
Arrival? The timetables were always elaborate and often comprehensible; but they were more inclined to wishful prognosis than achievable goal. 12:14? Possible, but unlikely. This afternoon?
Yes, very probably.
Have I finished this piece?
Yes. Very probably…