Here in dear old blighty, there’s a lot of moaning about trains. Actually, I don’t think we’ve ever stopped moaning about them … it’s more like just one long moan that started around 1910, but the moan has been louder at some points than at others. At the moment it is very loud.
Ticket cost is usually the most common gripe; probably because that’s the easiest for us to quantify. We – the moaners of Great Britain – enjoy measuring things as much as we enjoy moaning; which is why for the last few hundred years we have paid people good money to write down how much it rains. The double whammy of being able to complain about the weather and then go on and on about exactly how much shitter it is now compared to 1860 is just too good an opportunity to ignore. If ever there was a way of blaming it on foreigners then we would create the perfect triumvirate of quintessential British bile.
After ticket cost comes train reliability. It seems odd that we should complain about this, because the British expect things to break down. We expect the things we do to be shit. God help any foreigner who decides to point this out: we know how bad we are, and we’re allowed to point it out about outselves … but we don’t need Johnny Foreigner to mention it. Keep quiet or we might invade you again. No, you can’t have your island back.
Then there’s the quality of the seats, the disparity between standard class and first class, the exhorbitant prices of the snacks trolley, dickheads in the quiet zone, the smell of the toilets, and the general ugliness of the ticket inspectors (apart from one lady on the Leeds-to-Plymouth train in the mornings, who I think is just checking tickets until her modelling career kicks off). These are all uncontested facts in the saga of British train travel.
My job (which I am enjoying immensely) is in Birmingham. I live around fifty miles away.
In the beginning, I drove to work. Fifty miles is not a massive amount of driving, and I have a comprehensive comedy MP3 collection. I had heard the horror stories of Birmingham roads … but my previous job had me drive around central and north London on a regular basis, so I figured I’d seen the worst that UK roads had to offer.
I lasted a fortnight.
It was hell. It wasn’t so much commuting, as a snuff-movie version of The Wacky Races. The very worst of London traffic is a picnic compared to Birmingham city centre at 8:30am. I’ve never known anything like it. To say that I’d rather be driving through Hammersmith or Tottenham than Birmingham is quite damning.
SatNav is little help; it can tell you what roads to travel down in order to get to work, but it can’t give you any help about how to do it without getting killed. Jane (lovely girl) has been faithfully getting me from A to B for the last ten years … but I’m pretty sure that partway through my second week I heard her sobbing when we passed Lichfield.
Driving through Birmingham is like a spaghetti western before dubbing – it’s lawless, I’m liable to get killed over a slight misunderstanding, and I can’t understand what any of the locals are saying. Perhaps it is worse: I don’t remember anyone in the old west having to get up at 6am and then commute in order to get killed, and the bandits weren’t wearing high-vis jackets in the multistorey carparks. In Birmingham, “high-noon” is actually around 8:30am; the O.K. Coral is the Matalan roundabout.
So anyway … I ditched the car (and my morning ritual of hugging the office receptionist because I was glad to be alive) in favour of the train. And so far, you’d think that the best slogan for trains I could come up with is “it’s less shit than driving”.
But actually … I like the train. I really do!
Yes, the service is rubbish. Yes, it means I have to tolerate expensive and barely-digestible tea at the station. Yes, WH Smiths are bare-faced robbing bastards. And yes, delays have often seen me hours late getting home. And yet, I still maintain a romantic, old-fashioned notion of rail travel.
From the time I get on the train to the time I get off, no-one can get in contact with me. Mobile phone coverage becomes unreliable; but even if it weren’t, my phone is on silent, buried at the bottom of my bag. No-one can possibly have any expectation of me … except, perhaps, the girl next to me who presumably hopes that I’m not going to fart all the way from Burton to Birmingham. This is a precious time – just for an hour, no-one can demand anything of me. I don’t need to make any decisions, or sit in meetings, or explain any of my work, or fix anything I’ve broken. It’s just me and a book. I can indulge the fantasy that my life is on pause; that for the next sixty minutes the rest of the world can manage without me.
And the only thing I have to consider is whether I should actually get off the train at Birmingham, or whether I should just stay on until I get to the seaside …