Sunday, 3 October 2010


We took the Pendolino from Manchester to Euston recently. There was a problem with our train. It was a fine train in many respects, very space-age, with its aircraft-style features, and the quaint rotato-toilet that has the alarm conveniently alongside the open/close door button, so a reliable succession of idiots (like me) can set it off and blame it on being 'jogged' at a crucial moment.

Scoff a Ginster's in style. Or not.

We couldn't go as fast as it is possible to go, nor would the 'active lateral pneumatic suspension' work properly because, the announcer explained, the track was made of nineteenth-century wax, or something. A bit like putting the cart before the racehorse, I thought, but didn't say anything.

It'd been a long time before that since I went on a train, and I noticed that the problem was still there. The same one as before. It's the same problem they'd have if they decided to make buses into hover-coaches. They could put the finest minds of science into it, make them stylish, and functional, and fill them with modern gadgets, like, oh I don't know - a sauna and an eyebrow press. But - and here's the problem - there'd still be the same people on them. You're not suddenly going to get a more discerning class of passenger just because you polished up the ride. Mr 8-litre Ranchero is not going to renounce fingerprint engine starts and sprint for the nearest bus-stop, yelling, "Eyebrow press, y'say? Lead on, Carruthers...!"

No, some things you just can't change, unfortunately, and that was the real problem with our train. It was as if these people had never been away. I can only assume that they are, in fact, career misfits, graduates of a school specially designated for the job. Most notable among them was mister 'Still-pissed-wrong-stop-student.' two seats in front. Mr. Still-Pissed should have got off at Tottenham many hours ago, but needless to say, didn't. Now, he's telling anyone who will listen how much that return ticket cost and why it is such a travesty. What comes across clearly, as he relays this to the third unfortunate listener on the other end of his mobile phone, is the outrage and disbelief at the fish-eyed grunts at Piccadilly, who refused to let him come back for free.

"I mean, right, I facking fell asleep, yeah - fair enough. But then these caants've got the facking nerve to charge me 'aandred and firty-four quid to get back! 'aaandred and fackin' firty-four facking quid!! En I'm a stoodent, en ai?"

So, straight away, it's nine-thirty in the morning and we are already a captive audience to this foul-mouthed cockney melodrama. Speaking of gobby southerners, I remember that I happen to have one at the side of me, whom I married partly for this express purpose.

"Deal with your kinsman," I think about commanding, but she has already foreclosed on the notion by giving him a lecture in his own tongue. I don't know exactly what was said, it was all a bit diphthonged and lairy-larynxed, but I did manage to catch 'ere do you moind?' and 'I've got children 'ere.."

Cor blimey Maori Pawpins!

There was only ever going to be one outcome from this altercation, and in due course the oik stumbled off to annoy a different carriage, mouthing the word 'bollocks' behind him.

"I don't want to know what's keepin' yer ears apart," Carole snaps after him, and in the lightened atmosphere of laughter and applause (all implied rather than physical, of course, in the English way) I remember why I love my wife so much.

I then made the mistake of believing that the next two to three hours would be filled with a peaceful silence. What I should have been prepared for, were I a more seasoned train traveller, was the inevitable white noise that would magically take up the slack and fill this void, from the many, many other annoying dysfunctionals aboard.

And that's what's really wrong with trains. All this money spent on making things that don't work in areas that can't support them would have been a lot better employed in other areas, namely - acoustics.

Imagine being sealed in a opaque, hermetic, sound-proofed bubble for the duration of your journey, with just a little rubber-gloved inlet so that the ticket master can check your ticket, or dispense a small thimble of absinthe for the children.

Now that would be progress.

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