You can interpret “joys of train travel” in two ways. Before starting this driving work in May last year, I hardly ever travelled by train. Now I do it all the time. Very, very occasionally, it is frustrating, e.g. delays, cancellations, overcrowded trains and the occasional obstructive member of station staff demanding that I have a ticket before I can go to the ticket office! So, “joys of” in a sarcastic sense. However, since I usually travel by train outside of rush hour on mostly uncrowded trains, it normally is a genuine joy. A nice drive, walk or bus to a station and pleasant train ride home (you can read about how I usually occupy myself on a train here). Here are some observations gleaned from my year and half of frequent train travel:-
PLATFORM ATHLETICS: If you see your train waiting at the station platform you will run for it even if you know it is not due to leave for another seven minutes. The pathetic loping run that you effect is slower than a brisk walk so it takes you longer to reach the train anyway (its the same run you do crossing the road when a car kindly stops for you).
GOING TO THE LOO: The public toilets in most station ticket halls have an automatic turnstile demanding 20p before you can proceed. If you are bereft of a 20p coin or you are simply a tightwad, don’t panic. After you have gone through the ticket barriers, you can usually go on the platform for free. Just ask your fellow travellers to look away for a few moments and remember not to face into the wind. Seriously, there are usually less financially demanding facilities on most station platforms.
LATE TRAINS. We like to knock our train services but to be fair, they are generally not
too bad disastrous. However, when trains are late, the announcement is met with no surprise and a general air of resignation. If a train is due at 13.45 and the board says it is expected at 13.48, most of us probably don’t consider that as late. If it actually arrives at 13.48, we often think that’s quite good. Swiss trains, on the other hand, are legendary for always being on time. However ….. many years ago when on a business trip to Switzerland, I was at a station waiting for a train to take me back to Zurich airport. It was after five o’clock, the sun was shining and the platform was packed with happy Swiss commuters chatting away, discussing their day at work and whether they would be having cheese fondue or maybe, … cheese fondue for dinner. Then something strange happened. The station clock ticked on to the time the train was due to arrive but no sign of any train. The atmosphere on the platform changed very noticeably. A murmur of disquiet crept along the platform. People looked confused and uncomfortable. This did not compute … the train was …. LATE!!?? I sensed a real feeling of concern. National pride had been severely dented. The cheese fondue waiting for them at home would be cold. From a British point of view it was very interesting bearing witness to this remarkable event. I read afterwards that those responsible for the delay were sentenced to six months hard labour in the Swiss cheese mines and had their Toblerone ration cut. Incidentally, this event took place in the Swiss town of Zug. “Zug” means train in German.
HUMOUR: Train staff can be friendly and amusing; they are not all jobsworths. Example:
A member of staff collecting rubbish on a train somewhere in the East Midlands comes down the aisle with a large bin bag chanting this mantra: “Any rubbish, coffees cups, laptops, mobile phones, Rolex watches, Nottingham Forest fans….”. Obviously a fan of Derby County Football Club (Nottingham Forest’s arch rivals).
UNORIGINAL HUMOUR: Two weeks later, a different member of staff on another train somewhere in the East Midlands:-
“Any rubbish, coffees cups, laptops, mobile phones, Rolex watches, Derby County fans….”.
ON-BOARD REFRESHMENTS: Does anyone ever buy anything from the on-board refreshment trolley? It’s pushed up and down the train by a person looking and sounding totally dejected and miserable, like Marvin the Paranoid Android from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Coffees, teas, snacks … Brain the size of a planet and they just make me push this trolley up and down all day. Nobody notices. I don’t know why I bother.”
Well, if no-one notices, why not liven it up a bit? “Teas, coffees, lobster thermidor, earwig sandwiches, crêpe suzette, Mini Cheddars….”. No, still no-one took any notice. Have you noticed, there’s always Mini Cheddars on the trolley. Are they really that popular?
TRAIN ANNOUNCEMENTS: It is often difficult to decipher announcements made on trains but sometimes I manage it. The most alarming announcement that I have heard on a train was: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are now arriving in March.” Hearing this in the month of May was quite disconcerting. Am I going to be stranded on this train for nine months? What are we going to eat? Will the Mini Cheddars last? Will my family miss me? Don’t answer that last question. Relief washed over me as I realised we were approaching the small town of March in Cambridgeshire.
APPROACHING THE NEXT STOP: Why does it take so long for a train to reach a station after the announcement “Ladies and gentlemen, we are now approaching X. X your next station stop.”? Everyone wolfs down their lobster thermidor, hurriedly puts their coat on, gathers belongings and stands up …. for the next 15 minutes as the train creeps more slowly than a Trabant full of elephants through seedy suburbs and finally, to the station. I would have had time for a crêpe suzette.
TECHNOLOGY FAILURE: It is not helpful when the seat reservations are not displayed on the little electronic screens until after everyone has boarded and found a seat. When the little screens above 80% of the seats then change from “available” to “reserved”, there ensues a grumpy game of musical chairs but accompanied by mutterings and grumblings rather than real music.
HISTORIC ARCHITECTURE. In the UK we have a fantastic number of very old churches which represent an amazing heritage of ancient, historic and beautiful architecture that we really take for granted. Likewise, many of the railway stations in the UK are fabulous buildings and I suspect many people forget to appreciate these chapels and cathedrals of travel. They may not be as ancient as most of the UK’s churches but next time you approach a station, stop for a few moments and take in the grandeur, elegance and/or quaintness of the outside. Sometimes these aesthetic qualities extend to the interiors of stations as well. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all stations. If you are walking towards Peterborough station, for example, don’t get too excited.