4 Dec 2012

"Let the joy be unrestrained" - Sharon Endacotte column

In which Sharon Endacotte does a Speedmonkey first - writes about public transport, and trains in particular (shudder)

Well, it’s time for the annual Trial By Public Transport.

Have I mentioned lately just how much I hate travelling? I don’t just mean the inevitable inconvenience of Tube trains that don’t have accessible platforms (try getting across a platform bridge with sixty pounds of luggage – and yes, I weighed it, so I know), or buses that don’t turn up, or turn up late, or terminate early. No, that’s bad enough, but anything that involves travelling by train is a very special kind of hell that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

So why am I writing to this from the 13.06 from London Paddington, rather than regaling you with a retrospective following a drive down through the picturesque West Country? Well, first of all, my car is a joy and a delight when it works, but a 1967 Triumph Herald convertible, with its rear wheel drive layout and broken heater is about as poor a choice as there could be when it comes to driving though the most severe winter in (they say) 31 years.

 It would defeat the object somewhat if I arrived at my destination dead, though on the plus side, at least I’d be well refrigerated. Secondly, having learned a lesson with last year’s hellish journey through Britain’s frozen landscape, I had the sense to book a First Class ticket this time around. I'm also bitterly regretting not buying the shitbox of an ancient Land Rover I briefly considered and rejected as a bit pointless back in the summer when a rear wheel drive convertible with a broken heater was a good idea and there wasn't any bloody snow.

I don’t normally do this. I’m not really a First Class kind of person – although I’m undeniably, inescapably middle class, I don’t generally like to throw money away unnecessarily – but last year I had the most miserable journey imaginable. I was at least lucky enough to get a seat (I can only assume someone looked at my girth and assumed I was pregnant), but once I was in that seat I couldn’t leave it again until I got to the far end because even if there hadn’t been so many people standing in the aisles and vestibules, there was so much luggage that taking a slash became a challenge akin to conquering the north face of the Eiger. 

 Meanwhile, First Class was an oasis of calm, where beautiful people reclined in leathery comfort as liveried lackeys pandered to their every whim, floating among rafts of empty spaces that people were too tight to pay a premium for. By the time I got to Totnes, my bladder had taken on the proportions of one of Jupiter’s smaller moons. I probably dribbled on the seat of my dad’s Mazda every time we hit a pothole. Bugger that for a game of soldiers, there was no way I was doing it again this year.

I am, as I say, a little careful with money on occasion, so I booked my train tickets several weeks in advance. This meant that it didn’t actually cost an awful lot more for First Class and it meant I could feel smug when I saw the twinset and pearls brigade who normally hang out in the posh seats and who would have paid full price. And of course, the hoi polloi would be banished to cattle class and I would have an enjoyable trip in relative comfort.

Except that this year, they decided to ease overcrowding by declassifying the seating.

I don’t actually mind this really, because it seems to me that it’s grossly unfair to force people to stand when there are perfectly good seats available. Then again, it’s also grossly unfair that I booked this seat to avoid sitting opposite an obese, pizza-faced teenager with an attitude problem and an insatiable urge to load sandwiches into his gaping maw (achieving approximately a 50% hit rate, the rest landing on his garish t-shirt). And I still can’t get to the bloody toilet, because there are so many people piled into cattle class that the overspill into First is standing in the vestibule. This is not what I expected, though at least I’m not actually being crushed this year, which has to count as an improvement of sorts.

I think the problem, and it’s one I come back to again and again, is that I just don’t like people very much. I think there needs to be a new paradigm when it comes to rail travel: the individual booth. Remember those microwave chips that came in boxes that contained a matrix of tiny cells, each holding a single chip? This, I believe, is the ideal model for rail travel. Individual cubicles, each containing a padded commode and a flatscreen monitor with Internet access, that should do it. You wouldn’t have to leave your seat to go to take a piss, you could use the Web of Deceit to keep you occupied and you wouldn’t even have to have windows. 

 I’ve done this journey in these kinds of weather conditions twice now, and although snow’s very pretty in moderation, to be honest endless snow covered fields are a bit tedious to look at. It’s like gazing out across a county-sized cup of flat white (which I believe is the middle sized one in Starbucks). Of course, every once in a while you come across a little hamlet of snow-covered thatch that looks too much like a Christmas card cliché to be real, and that’s nice, but mostly it reminds me of the sneak peeks I took out the window of a train as I went from Leningrad (as it was then) to Moscow.

Oh no, hang on, it doesn’t. That train was warmer, more comfortable and considerably less crowded than this one. You can say what you like about the old Communist regime, because in the main they were a bunch of evil bastards, but at least they knew how to run a railway. Over here, they seem to have taken their cues from the old Soviet prison system instead.