Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Rail Travel

Something I've not done for quite a while now, is travel any great distance by rail…  Since passing my driving test, I have relied on the comfort, convenience and familiarity of my own car - perhaps too much, but certainly no more than many other people I know…

On the face of it, this seems mad…  Rail travel over any distance is likely to be less expensive than running a car, for a start, and you can hand the responsibility for the route, the handing of the vehicle, indeed, everything, over to the rail service operator…  It sounds relaxing - the idea that you can sit back while somebody else drives you to wherever you want to go…  Without the need to concentrate on driving the thing yourself, you can sit back and read a book or magazine, write a song, listen to music, or just to sleep…  I'm surprised that there are any cars left on the roads at all!

However, when one actually experiences a long-distance rail journey, it is not difficult to see why I, and many others, prefer traveling by road…!  To begin with, the relaxed, carefree picture of rail travel painted in the previous paragraphs only holds true if everything runs smoothly…  It only takes one small thing to go wrong, and the picture is hanging skew-wiff, the colours are running, and the artist himself is found dead in an alleyway with stab-wounds in his side and his money and passport stolen…

And there are many things that can delay or disrupt a rail journey - from a swan on the line, to the engine breaking down…!

But the worst bit of it all, is that you, as a mere passenger, are powerless to do anything about it!  As you sit frustrated in Coach D, Seat 30(A) listening to crackling announcements in what sounds like a foreign tongue over the speakers - "we apologise for this inconvenience" - you get later and later for whatever it is you're traveling for, and you realise that, had you been traveling in your own car, you could at least have tried to do something to help yourself…

Delays on the road are irritating, of course, but at least each driver is the master of his own destiny, the captain of his fate…  On the train, we are in the hands of others, and it never feels so bad as when you're waiting for news, and no news arrives, and nobody on the staff seems to know what's going on, and the unexplained delay drags on for hours, with no respite, no chance to get off and stretch your legs, and only the questionable fare of the "buffet car" to sustain yourself…

Furthermore, another large problem with traveling by rail is the vehicles themselves…  Hot, cramped, and poorly equipped, the trains of today are a far cry from the glamourous mode of transport those living in the golden age of steam came to know and love…  Perhaps it is my fault, for picking a career that doesn't (yet) seem to pay well enough for me to afford a First Class ticket, but I firmly believe that even Standard Class could be greatly improved from the unnerving experience it currently is…

Passengers - sorry, "customers" - are packed into the railway carriages as tightly as possible, and the result is a distinct lack of comfort, privacy, and individual discretion…  Everyone in the carriage can hear your telephone conversations, see what book you're reading, hear the spill from your iPod headphones, read what you're writing over your shoulder - you have no choice but to share these details of your life with whoever happens to be in the same train as you, for the duration of the journey…

And the rail companies don't exactly make life easy for you either...!

You are asked not to leave any luggage unattended "at any time", but nobody is on hand to explain how those traveling alone can visit the toilet, or buy a coffee, without dragging heavy suitcases and handbags everywhere with them…!

You are instructed to "familiarise yourself with the safety notices displayed around the train" which, on inspection, are rude and unhelpful…  (Much like some of the station staff one encounters on these journeys!)

"Please do not put feet on the seats" requests a sign displayed next to every group of four seats around a table - I am always tempted to write "I wouldn't need to, if you provided adequate leg-room!" underneath it…  (The tables themselves are small, and if more than one of the four passengers grouped around them wishes to read a newspaper, or work on a laptop computer, it presents a taxing logistical problem…)

A man in the corner, in a tie-dye shirt and leather skull-cap, picks his nose as he describes, in detail, his recently sexual exploits to whichever luckless individual is on the other end of the 'phone line…  Normally, I would run a mile from him - on the train, I can go about two inches in any direction, before colliding with something, or someone…  I can only sit in my seat, squirming with discomfort, turning up the volume on my iPod and hoping against hope that he dies within the next five minutes - or at least gets off at the next stop…  Disappointingly, he clings onto life, and not only stays on the train, but stays on the 'phone, for the next hour and a half…!

So, surrounded, at close proximity, by strangers, many of whom are very strange indeed, too hot with a jacket on, but too draughty without it, hemmed in, not just by people, but by absurd safety regulation, and with barely enough room for oneself, let alone one's things, the attractions of traveling in one's own car dangle temptingly before one's eyes…

The ability to make stops whenever, and wherever, you choose…  The ability to put in an extra piece of luggage, which you may or may not need, just in case…  The freedom to choose the temperature, the speed, the route, the radio station, the refreshments, and so on…  And not have a hundred other fraught travellers virtually sitting on your lap as you do it!

1 comment:

camdenheart said...

Well, you never know.. maybe they do terminate and a new one magically appears without anyone realising. Maybe trains have a short life span. Maybe they regenerate like Doctor Who. Hmmm...

Anyway, yes re: luggage! Luggage bays are often well out of eyesight, especially if you've pre-booked a seat and happen to end up 10-15 rows away from the nearest one.

The other day I missed my connection at Norwich on the way back from London and ended up on the train with all the loud school kids that take up half the train and can't sit still... that's the sorta time I long for my own transport! Well, that and the control over arrival/departure times and such, of course.

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