I seldom post about rail travel, mainly because there are plenty of other bloggers out there who do this, and partly because it is a routine part of existence that hasn't got materially better or worse in recent years (in general). However, following a cringe-worthy journey from Glasgow to London yesterday, the entire juxtaposition of the allegedly supreme private-sector expertise and the grim reality of a Friday afternoon fiasco made me consider the links between fantasy and reality.
Heading south, the train ground to a halt somewhere in the vicinity of Oxenholme. After about half an hour we were told by our cheery guard (I believe called a "Train Manager" in these times of subtle satire in job descriptions) that there was "a fault with the safety systems". Not reassuring, especially as the word "safety" has the same significance in railway circles as the Blessed Virgin in those areas where incense and choirboys mix. However, after a little while, we were on the move, carefree, mobile and heading for Preston. The guard's view was that the train "might be terminated" there - although those of us with technical nous and access to the Internet knew that this was already the intention.
Preston is a dreary station at the best of times. Seven o'clock on a damp Friday evening does not even approach such an apotheosis. The passengers were spewed out into the dimly-lit ambience; the impression was that one was emerging into a film-set that was attempting to juxtapose British life during the Second World War with a method-acting attempt to recreate the ambience of the Bombay railway system in rush-hour. For around half an hour, the passengers stood by the crippled train, without information about what would happen next. The indicators presented a litany of increasing delay, the station staff were attempting the "Nothingness" technique of existentialism, and eventually trains were announced to points south, albeit without any urgency to inform the old, infirm and otherwise debilitated (there were a lot of Glaswegians who had spent about three weeks' worth of Scottish GDP in the award-winning Virgin Shop), that they needed to negotiate footbridges, subways and crowds wanting to go to Manchester.
A London-bound train pulled in. It was not quite the last days of Hanoi, but close. The train sat still. Then the public address system crackled into life - announcing that "the train couldn't move until some people got off, as it was too full". Clearly a few public-spirited people, or those who hankered after their lungs being able to function, did this, as we merrily crawled out in the direction of Wigan, Warrington and Crewe, gradually gettting later and later. Joyous announcements followed about the potential connecting destinations you could possibly arrive at, especially if the train arrived with a reasonable chance of hoofing luggage, pensioners and doleful teenagers over footbridges.
The line between Stafford and Rugby is not noted for its scenic beauty, so it was just as well that it was a moonlit night. We had plenty of time to enjoy it, as our friendly signalmen had decided that keeping a local train company was a sensible use of our time and theirs. Just as we accelerated past it, there came even better news that the train had suffered a tilt failure, and therefore would go slowly all the way to London. In the end, apart from hapless people wanting to connect at Milton Keynes for such fine places as Tring and Watford, whose train could be seen pulling out just as our doors opened, we arrived in London only 45 minutes late (on the schedule for the train but not the passengers).
Seldom is it worthwhile posting tales of woe such as this, except as catharsis. However, what was very clear is that as with other walks of life, managers and people able to take decisions to benefit the customer are now so thin on the ground that when something goes wrong, affecting 500 people directly and those meeting or depending on them indirectly, there is never anyone actually there who can think laterally and interpose intelligence. Every brand is defined by its failings - those without philosophical tendencies or a liking for the Theatre of the Absurd will consider flying or driving after an experience like that. And that sure isn't environmentalism.
Over to you Ms Greening (get the difficult bits, like "Transport Policy" over in the title).