Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Off the rails

We're quite lucky, on this small, rain-sodden island of ours. It doesn't take too long to get anywhere. If the mood takes us we can jump on a train and go to, oh, I don't know, London for instance - have a meeting, take a picture of a gherkin-shaped building for no apparent reason - and then jump back on the train to be back at our desks by mid-afternoon.

Don't believe me? I see.

A bit of London.

Some people just aren't satisfied unless there is pickle-based architecture as proof.

But it's not all rosy. We've had rail travel for some time now, and yes, it's moved on a bit from Stephenson's Rocket. The latest ones even lean on bends - I have no idea if this makes them faster, but it's definitely cool. But there are still shortfalls.

People arranging meetings in London always seem to set them up to start at 10am. Despite the speed of modern trains, that still means having to get up at OhMyGod o'clock. You park in the station car park and walk, zombie-like to the station concourse. There are lots of other grumpy sleep-derived people there, all of them secretly hating the organisers of their meetings, who at this point are probably just waking up to a splendid breakfast in Islington.

Being vaguely organised you have booked your ticket and seat in advance. You go to the self-service machine and enter a handy 16-digit alphanumeric code on a touchscreen. Which promptly and simultaneously gives you both a Windows error message and a sense of foreboding with regards to the train company's technical expertise. Eventually it spits out a succession of small orange bits of cardboard. Your next few hours will revolve around these.

Walking down to the platform with your fellow melancholics, you wait for the train. These days we don't tend to have much in the way of delays, but to enliven your wait there will be a station announcer with nasal constriction and access to the Tannoy.

Your train arrives, and everyone dashes to find a seat. But not you. Oh no! You booked a forward-facing window seat on that snazzy website, didn't you? The seat number is even printed on one of those bits of orange card. You are relaxed and confident for the first time today. You're going to coach B, seat 33A. Everything is going to plan.

Which is why you're confused to find that seat 33A is (a) facing backwards (b) placed in the one row that has no window, and (c) has all the comfort and space of an above-ground coffin. You're going to spend the next hour and a quarter looking at a panel of beige plastic.

And as you become one with your panel, you realise that rail travel has one thing in common with flying in that you are, essentially, trapped in an aluminium tube along with the farts of a whole bunch of strangers.

I'm not sure that's an official policy of Virgin Trains. Maybe Richard Branson has a carb-heavy diet. Who knows?

So as I'm being dragged backwards through the English countryside, I'm aware that Sharon, three rows ahead, needs to tell David something. She has her phone out and is speaking, with a voice that could curdle milk at 20 paces. David appears to have issues with comprehension, however. After the seventh time she's told David that she's on a train, her fellow passengers are becoming keen on changing that situation.

We reach the capital and I get to experience the London Underground. I made a big mistake this time - I made eye contact with another traveller. I think I got away with it though. There might be a small parliamentary enquiry, nothing too major.

Meeting done, it's the same in return. I get to read someone else's copy of the Metro this time. No-one pays for it, and having read it I can see why. I could feel my brain trying to exit through my ears.

And then back to the car, having paid £8 for a few hours' parking. This 20' by 8' stretch of tarmac is on a better hourly rate than I was when I started my first Saturday job in a record store. OK, I can't accommodate a parked car, but I don't think it could have cashed up and told customers when the new Jesus and Mary Chain album was coming out.

It's a little known fact that Birmingham International railway station is home to a breeding colony of pterodactyls. That's the only way to explain the bewildering volume of fecal matter that is on my car when I got back to it. I don't know what pterodactyls eat, but their aim is uncannily good. The direct hit on the driver's window was especially skilful, I reflected, as I wound it down to put my ticket in the machine.

Oh yes, there's nothing like letting the train take the strain.

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