Monday, 29 November 2010

Testing times:- Car Versus Train

Like so many cars we sell, the black E250 coupe had been bought by a guy who saw it on the Internet, and who lived miles away from the dealership, and like the grinning fool I am I volunteered to deliver it. I might as well be paid for a day driving rather than doing all the other sales-related crap that dominates my every waking hour.

It was a nice enough car, but this isn’t a review of the Mercedes, this is a review of the journey. Car one way, train the other, exploring the relative benefits of each.

The roads spoiled me this morning with their sheer absence of traffic. I left Colchester at 10:30, a comfortably outside the rush hour but still at a time where those who ply their trade in cars, vans or lorries can be found clogging our tarmac arteries, and not once did I have to slow significantly. My road journey was spoiled only by the continual looming spectre of speed cameras.

The A14, in particular, is a minefield. With the traffic all moving at or around seventy, all exercising unusually competent lane discipline and generally behaving very well, I started to fall into a kind of automotive coma. I got used to following the traffic using my internal autopilot and before I knew it the entire stream of traffic was passing speed cameras at eighty. The cameras on the A14 are of the kind that calculate your average speed over a set distance. The problem is you never know what this distance is. You never know when you can stop worrying about your speed and just concentrate on driving. In a lot of cases, as we know, speed is just an innocent by-product of wanting to get to your destination quickly and safely.

Nevertheless, the entire motorway network between Essex and The North was dispatched in a little over three hours. It was completely painless and entirely without incident and I arrived at the clients house only eight minutes later than I had provisionally scheduled. The handover was disappointingly abrupt; he signed the papers with only the merest cursory glance over what was supposed to be his new pride and joy. It was a shame; I like it when customers demonstrate at least some emotion on what should be a pretty exciting day. He gave me a lift to Huddersfield Station in his BMW X5 and it was all over.

And this, really, is where the review begins. The journey up had taken me three hours and twenty minutes, with me travelling at reasonably legal speeds throughout. It used about half a tank of petrol, so the journey cost the company maybe £35. But that’s what we all expect. We all know about the road, what did the rail network have in store for me?

The first viable train involved three-quarters of an hour wait so I had time to grab a two-piece variety meal from KFC. It being autumn and raining in that inimitably grim northern way, I opted not to explore the city too intimately. Instead I waited on the rain-lashed station platform for my train to heave into view. After a while it did, and the assembled passengers shuffled aboard what was quite a clean and tidy unit, something called a Class 170 Turbostar.

It had individual seats trimmed in a hard-wearing moquette material, long lasting and nice to look at, and I was staggered to find that I had some legroom too. Despite this, the fact that I had a vacant seat next to me, perhaps because I was wearing a slightly shabby Mercedes-Benz jacket and people were concerned I might a) try to talk to them about cars, or maybe b) be a vagrant, persuaded me to recline across the pair of seats in a most inelegant, but comfortable manner. The only thing I was missing was any musical entertainment; I get bored with iPods and the finite number of tunes they can hold, preferring radio for its more varied content and, frankly, the company of a human voice. But I never seem to get decent reception on FM, and virtually none on DAB when I travel by train, so I gave up even trying.

A lady from somewhere near the Baltic was on hand to dispense refreshments, tea, coffee, unjustifiably up-priced Mars Bars, that sort of thing. She seemed to have been having a bad day, issuing the most plaintive, pained “any refreshments?” you ever heard, with a profound sense of forlorn hopelessness in her voice. Later she was to whirl through the cabin requesting passenger’s rubbish, accepting empty cans and sandwich wrappers with quite unnatural gratitude. She seemed hassled, suggesting a certain tension between her and the “train manager”. I imagined a relationship between them akin to that enjoyed by Manuel and Basil Fawlty.

I quickly remember another virtue of train travel; people-watching. All of life is here on this small inter-urban train, a fairly diverse ethnic mix, too. The definite highlight for me was the two girls of around twenty years who sat facing the row in front of me. Mesmerizingly pretty, they spoke to each other in soft Northern tones discussing subjects I couldn’t quite ascertain, nor should I have. I enjoyed just looking at them, not in a stalkerly way but just because they were pleasant to look at. I was actually able to watch them indirectly in their reflection in my window. It was genius, I could see a mirror image of everything they did without them realising. Please note; this was entirely innocent and just  for entertainment, I derived no special gratification from my gazing at them. But it did highlight one great feature of train travel, meeting people.

Somebody would sit next to me at some point, I was sure. Whenever you board a train, or especially a plane, you sit there in hope that the seat next to you will remain unoccupied, your heart eventually sinking when the usual fat businessman lands next to you. Occasionally, though, it can be a beautiful thing. Flying to New York I had the pleasure of a delightful girl called Sarah in the seat beside me. We had conversation and eventually a Starbucks together at Washington Dulles airport. I took her e-mail address and comprehensively failed to stay in touch. If you’re out there, Sarah, I’m sorry and wish you well.  

My next train was already stabled at Leeds station when I got there after a shortish and unremarkable journey in the hands of the Trans-Pennine Railway Company.  Prior to the privatisation of British Rail and the inception of dozens of train operating companies, British Rail was split into various sectors, one of which was Intercity who looked after long routes between large towns. I have memories of Intercity being posh, with their elegant silver Swallow logo and black and brown livery. As a boy, leaving Liverpool Street station for home, I was always disappointed that we couldn’t take the Intercity. Mum said they were the “posh trains” and that we have to take a normal one.

Intercity were the flagship of the British Rail network. The Intercity 125 was developed in the late seventies and introduced in the early eighties, for a long while the fastest diesel train in the world, and still giving excellent service under a variety of brand names. It was upstaged in the late eighties by the Intercity 225, plying the now fully electrified east-cost mainline at 140mph, (conveniently 225km/h). And one of these was to be the second train I took today.

Nowadays there is no Intercity, the privatisation resulted in different routes being run by different companies all chasing bottom lines and government targets. The older rolling stock has been passed through generations of company, and today I sit in a beautifully refurbished tourist-class coach on an East Coast Trains Intercity 225.

I’m on the station fifteen minutes early; the train cleaning squad are stripping out all the commuter detritus before letting new guests on board. They do a good job; the train is immaculate inside. I grab a seat by the window, relax into the faun velour and curse that I didn’t bring my laptop to make use of the free wi-fi and seat-side power socket. It was thoroughly comfortable and had a far more pleasant ambiance than I had expected, all pale wood surfaces, halogen downlighting and diffused light. When the train started to move off I was fairly confident that we would win back the time we had lost, for all its comfort the train had still managed to leave the station ten minutes late.

Nevertheless we were soon spearing across the countryside in the failing autumn light and I was quickly reminded of one of my greatest loves of rail travel; the sense of mystery in not knowing where you are at any intermediate stage of your journey. Small rural stations flashed by, the long lines of traffic pausing languidly at overcrowded intersections gave me a strong feeling of smugness, until the train slowed and came to a halt unexpectedly in the middle of what looked like a housing estate.

For ten minutes we sat there, my window in perfect alignment with the view through an upstairs bedroom window, I waited in vain for any titillating suburban bedroom activity to unfold before me. Eventually the train moved off again. No explanation was offered. 

Eventually the light faded so far that the view no longer had my attention and I turned my eye to the pages of Stuart Maconies great work Adventure On The High Teas, In Search Of Middle England. After a good two dozen pages of enlightenment and laughter my eyelids were becoming heavy and I let the trains rhythm and quiet power lull me into a light slumber. I find sleeping on trains an extremely easy thing to do, and one of the major benefits of rail travel. It also often triggers extremely vivid and imaginative dreams. No such luck on this journey, and after ten minutes my remarkably accurate internal body clock woke to remind me we must be at Peterborough Station by now, surely?

We weren’t, and it felt like the driver knew it. For the first time on the journey I was aware of the locomotive two coaches away, over four thousand horsepower being called on to promote rapid progress. The song of the machinery rose and fell with the attitude of the track, we were really flying through the Cambridgeshire countryside and my interest in the passing darkness was renewed by the race against time. We should have been in Peterborough five minutes ago.

I glumly consider the prospect of a long wait on a desolate windswept platform awaiting the late train, as my journeys end in the arms of my girlfriend faded further into the future. We were still hurtling through the night, who knew how far from civilisation. It was now fifteen minutes past time for my next train and it seemed that the driver had admitted defeat, the hum of the locomotive had settled to a steady whine and we appeared to moving at a more stately pace than ten minutes ago. Then we passed a lit window. And another. And some more. First a few houses, then more, then a shopping centre, then the urban sprawl. Peterborough had finally arrived, not before time.

I stood in the carriage vestibule trying to second guess which side of the train the platform would end up on. I chose poorly and ended up behind two folk were obviously veterans of this route, which meant that I had to stroll from the train matching their pace rather than leaping to freedom as I had intended. Still, such rapid movement would be futile as I had to linger in hope of train for the best part of an hour.

Or did I? The other side of the station I saw a train waiting at platform 5. Could it be? I rushed over the footbridge at that awkward half walking, half running gait denoting the harassed, weary traveller. My peripheral vision had clocked the information display and it seemed that this, miraculously, was indeed my train, delayed by a signalling fault in Ely, but the doors were locked. My hopes were dashed once more and I contemplated suicide before the conductor yelled “go on mate” and the doors slid open. I yelled back a quick but sincere thanks, but he had disappeared. Maybe he had been some dishevelled railway guardian angel, a talisman looking out for me as I wound my way across the country. Saint Peter, I shall call him. No I won’t, because he’s standing at the end of the carriage again, eating a sausage roll.

Benevolent spectre or none, I was safely aboard my final train, for what would be the longest stage of the journey in terms of minutes if not geographical miles. I was once again on a Class 170 Turbostar, albeit a slightly shabbier, less mollycoddled example. There was confusion too among passengers as the train left the station, as the destination display resolutely told us that we were heading for Peterborough, a lie it continued to perpetrate for the entire journey.

My hopes of a sensible arrival time took a further setback when the conductor, now fully confirmed as not having been an apparition, made his announcement listing all intermediate stops and the true destination of the train as Ipswich. Ipswich? But the information and yesterdays Internet research told me that this train would take me all the way to Colchester! Outrageous. At that point my phone alerted me to a text message from my girlfriend, asking for a progress report and ETA. I told her that I simply didn’t know. Now I had to change trains again at Ipswich my timetable had done its usual trick of dissolving into a mythological riot of lies and fables, leaving nobody on the train sure of quite when or where they’d end up tonight.

Annoying too was that I had managed to find a seat where there was a constant and annoying rattle in the metalwork above me, which quietened when the train accelerated but returned to its previous severity whenever the engine was at idle. I noticed, too, that despite sitting in roughly the same position as I was in the train to Leeds, that this one was far noisier. I like diesel engine noises, especially big powerful ones, but I wondered why this train should be so much noisier than its classmate.

No matter. There were relatively few people on the train and again I had a double seat to myself. This time I went to sleep almost immediately, the flat scenery across the Fens doing little to stimulate me in what was, by now, complete darkness.  An hour or so later I had used up my bank of sleepiness and turned again to the view and looking at my fellow passengers. They were sparse in number and varied in character, but none of them looked to be in any particular hurry.

As we stopped at Ely I the conductor made a further announcement, this time going on to mention Colchester, Witham, and London Liverpool Street as eventual destinations. It sounded like he had only just been informed of his route, he clearly thought his evenings work finished at Ipswich if the way he failed to pronounce any of the syllables of his announcement was any indication. It was the most indistinct railway announcement I had ever heard, a feat that is in merit of some accolade in itself. It was a most welcome announcement though, and reassured me that I wouldn’t be stuck in Ipswich waiting for another train.

At Ipswich station there were new passengers and a new and infinitely more personable sounding conductor who sounded only too pleased to be with the train all the way to London. Confusion still reigned among the new cargo, the train still insisted that it wanted to go to Peterborough, the two ladies in front of me suggested it were some kind of “lucky dip” train taking us to a mystery station somewhere in the British Isles. Happily it wasn’t, and before long we arrived amongst the familiar 1960s concrete greyness of Colchester Station, proud host of Britains longest station platform for some years.

I currently sit at my desk having had the time to reflect on my day on road and rail between here and The North. The first part of my journey was totally without incident, as unremarkable as any other motorway journey. Only the sparseness of the traffic was in any way out of the ordinary. It was more difficult to evaluate the return, rail aspect of the endeavour.

The most enjoyable aspect, even for somebody as keen on driving as I am, is that somebody else is at the wheel leaving you free to relax, enjoy the view or drink yourself into a stupor if you so desire. When all goes well, trains can be fabulous places to sit and watch the miles slip by. On the other hand, I only made my Peterborough connection because both trains were equally held up. This would suggest, as I have always been suspicious, that trains don’t really make a lot of sense if you have to get anywhere in a limited time frame. My Journey to Huddersfield by car had taken three hours twenty, returning by train had taken four and a half hours, and that only got me as far as the station whereas the car offers a transport solution from door to door.

Most damning for the case of train travel is the price of it. At a time where environmental concerns are encouraging us to all hang our keys up and take to the buses and trains, the sheer cost of doing so is forcing us back in the other direction. A single ticket from Huddersfield to Colchester costs over eighty pounds, and that’s for the cheaper route that I took that bypasses London. And that route isn’t an anomaly; I rarely go on a train journey that works out cheaper than driving.

I would love to go on more train journeys, just for the hell of it. I’d love to explore the byways of Britain and her quiet branch-lines, but I can’t afford it. I can’t see how anybody can afford it. Just as soaring petrol prices prevent us going out for a Sunday afternoon drive, we have been priced off the rails. I love learning the geography of Britain through a window at high speed. I love nosily looking into other peoples back gardens, passing offices and gymnasiums, parks and football matches. I have seen an awful lot of the English interior through the window of an express, but only get this luxury these days if it’s subsidised by my company.

And this is how it may end up. The railways could become another form of corporate travel, just as the intercontinental planes are stuffed with businessmen on company-sponsored trips. If Conglomerated International pays for it, who cares how much it costs? In fact, screw it, I’ll go first class. With this story already approaching novella length I shall refrain from going into the politics too deeply; I’m not educationally qualified to do so anyway.  I can, though, fairly say that revenue generation is more of a priority now the trains are run by the private sector than when the government were at the helm.

When privatisation was first proposed it was seen as a way of improving the quality of the service as well as cutting costs. The train operating companies would theoretically whip each other into shape and be in competition for your custom, a sort of railway treaty of Versailles. It didn’t work, though. The companies were quick to realise that it’s much easier to improve profits by ramping up prices than by improving service. I know it will never happen, but renationalisation, taking back the controls and reigning in some of the corporate greed might well be a good step towards getting England back on the rails.

In its current state, train travel is as fantastic as it is flawed and the car continues to be the cheapest, most direct, most reliable way of getting from A to Z. And you get to listen to Radio 2.