Saturday, 23 October 2010

And Another Thing... Oxford Road

[From the throng a loan voice ballardises] Oxford Road, Oxford Road, everyone’s got their head down bowed...

“The sixteen fifty two service to Middlesbrough is delayed by approximately fifty two minutes. Last North Western would like to apologise for the delay and for any inconvenience this may cause you.”

Anyone who thinks that capitalism is the greatest thing ever never spent any time commuting by rail. Here I stand, waiting for a service that is now delayed longer than the length of my actual journey. Being rush hour, that means a platform full of pissed but resigned faces. Buddhism should be adopted as the religion of British rail commuters, for to travel by train in this country is to know that life is suffering. For those of you still clinging to Roman-Christian tradition, may I recommend a timely prayer to St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.

“The seventeen nineteen service to Blackpool North is delayed by approximately twenty eight minutes. Last North Western would like to apologise for the delay and for any inconvenience this may cause you.”

That’s me. This tends to happen every three or four weeks, but despite what the board may say the train is never actually ON TIME. In Switzerland, in Holland, in Belgium, trains leave to the second of their schedule. In Britain when the train is timetabled to leave it has yet to even shuffle into the station. Despite this reality, the Office of Rail Regulation reckons that 88% of trains run on time. It makes you wonder how late a train has to be before it is “officially” late (“Delayed,” as if held up by a Tyrannosaurus on the track). The one time I ever experienced a train arriving on time (it was actually early), it didn’t move for over an hour. Unlike the continent, timetables here are aspirational; they tell you when the train might arrive at your destination if it were travelling in a vacuum, unencumbered by passengers.

“The seventeen nineteen service to Blackpool North is delayed by approximately twenty nine minutes. Last North Western would like to apologise for the delay and for any inconvenience this may cause you.”

And this is why my initial statement holds true. Governments attempt to sell us this lie that privatisation is the only viable way to run the world. Yet the British railways are the epitome of the private sector, where service is sacrificed in favour of profitability, where figures are massaged, equipment is broken or obsolete, and where incompetence is almost always rewarded.

“Please do not leave your luggage unattended. Unattended luggage may be removed or destroyed by the security services.”

Yet still they can’t resist telling us off for they know no shame. Besides, only the dumbest of terrorists would blow up a train: Who would notice the difference? Welcome to Britain under New Labour. Please remain fixed on external threats while we rob you blind. It’s not terrorists you need to worry about, it’s someone losing it waiting for the “delayed” sixteen fifty two service to Middlesbrough and going on a tri-platform killing spree.

“Can I have your attention please on Platform Three. We are sorry to announce that the sixteen fifty two service to Middlesbrough has been cancelled. Last North Western would like to apologise for any bloodshed and the inconvenience this may cause you.”

That’s not too annoying is it? Apology after apology after apology, an infinitely looped electronic slap in the face, with nary a hint of remorse or shame or reassurance of how things might improve for the future. Nor any offer of compensation for the time you had to make up after being delayed Monday morning. When the rail operators fail to provide the advertised service, who pays the fine? And yet there’s always someone before, during and after my journey checking to ensure that I have a valid ticket, because failure to pay for this abuse would be a criminal offense. In fact this very station has spent thousands of pounds installing a ticket barrier which serves purely cosmetic purposes, accepting any ticket valid or not. I went through it with a tram ticket the other day, just to see if it would accept it.

Platform Two for the seventeen thirty service to Blackpool North.”

Finally. Around the corner it comes and what a surprise, three carriages. Yesterday there were six. Why the discrepancy? Who knows. My theory is that rail operators employ Dungeon Masters to throw six sided dice when making that decision. I do know that the companies don’t own the carriages, they hire them for millions of pounds a year, so draw your own conclusions.

Three carriages, but it could be worse. Sometimes the next train is cancelled and the few people who would hang back join the scrummage for the doors. I would opt out too but I’ve grown adept at this and can usually judge where to stand so the doors stop right in front of me. Besides, I couldn’t get out now if I wanted to. I’m surrounded.

Here we see the microcosm at work. Cooperation supplanted by competition, every man for himself with no women and children or elderly permitted first, as the few lucky ones scramble on to an already overladen carriage and squeeze into the corridor. It’s amazing how many people can be shoehorned into such a short space when motivated by the desperate desire to just get home. The late great Linda Smith once observed that rail journeys in this country are now like the one made by Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago, with parents throwing their offspring on to “knackered rolling stock... ‘I’ll never see Pearly Oaks, but my child might’.”

I have a piece of advice for those of you who find themselves running thirty seven minutes late on a train that is meant to take twenty six minutes, but rarely takes anything under thirty, shunted into a corner by six carriages of passengers squeezed onto a three carriage service, hemmed in, hot and airless, every nook and cranny filled with human cargo, like some tableau of the transatlantic slave trade (Tableau being apt, given the customary stop in the middle of nowhere outside some unspecified field for no adequately explained Reason*), wondering all the time how no one dies of heat exhaustion on balmy days like these, and wondering too why you’re paying higher fares than any rail passenger in Western Europe. My advice to you is this: Always carry a copy of Barber’s Adagio for Strings for just such occasions. Those soaring strings are the only way to survive the rising stress levels from a twice daily demonstration of privatisation in action. Your leaders would have you believe that the bankers are the exception, but commute for one month and you’ll see that they are very much the rule. What we need is a rail passengers’ strike, a day of national prayer, affiliation to Buy Nothing Day, anything. Something.

I pull into my station seventy minutes late. And you know the worst thing about being “delayed”? Less time to recover before being compelled to do it all over again.

In my dreams I dream of working from home...

*A mate of mine recently missed going to the Liverpool/Real Madrid match as his train home from work was “delayed” two and a half hours on one of these mystery stops.

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