Railway companies are pretending to be like airlines – only more expensive. Passengers at Newcastle, bound for Edinburgh or London, are met with big signs from LNER telling them they may take only one piece of hand luggage and two bags.
These are preposterous rules. It’s not as if a train has to become airborne. The point of getting a train used to be that it was roomy. You could wander around on a long journey, visiting the buffet for a drink or even having lunch in the dining car.
Now you are jammed into airline-style seats with an idiot on the phone nine inches behind your left ear and without room to cross your legs. Above seats on new rolling stock, luggage racks are so shallow that only a briefcase will fit.
On the Great Western, students bringing suitcases full of laundry home to be washed can find nowhere to stow the luggage, and goofily plonk it on the seats beside them, forcing humble families to squat between carriages, like poor Jeremy Corbyn when he found his train “rammed”.
The airline experience begins even before boarding. No one I’ve met likes airports, but the same uncomfortable anxiety is now provided at stations. Passengers have to stand on the concourse to learn whether the train has been cancelled or, if it hasn’t, from which platform it will leave. Impossibly near to the departure time, a platform is announced and everyone rushes off, over-burdened, to board, like the holiday crowd in Jacques Tati’s Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot.
More fool you if you haven’t bought a ticket in advance. A great thing about rail travel used to be the ability to buy a ticket at the booking office and use it on whatever train one fancied. That is now impossibly expensive. So, weeks ahead, you must buy a ticket for a named train, hoping it will not be on a strike day. But then the train on which you have a reservation is cancelled.
Travellers on Avanti West Coast Mainline trains know this is quite likely. It’s a dead cert on lines served by TransPennine Express. “Express” in its name means the same as it does on the Continent: a very slow train.
To be sure of a TransPennine Express service from, say, Malton, Yorkshire, making a connection to catch a mainline train from York, you must take the train an hour earlier, in case of a cancellation. It’s the same experience that short-haul passengers experienced at the weekend at Heathrow, trying to make a connecting long-haul flight: it was too windy and staff did not turn up to work, so they missed their connections.
When a train is cancelled full of passengers with reserved seats, they are all bundled onto the next train, already full of passengers with reserved seats. It’s like airlines bumping customers on overbooked flights.
A joy of railway travel used to be a quiet compartment from which the contemplative passenger could watch the scenery pass by. Avanti has scuppered that possibility by providing seats, even when they are reserved as window seats, that are next to blank walls.
Piped music is not yet pumped out in trains, but constant announcements blare out in dislocated grammar (“arriving into”, “station stop”) delivered by ChatGPT-trained automata.
If you make it to St Pancras or Euston, it’s a very long walk, as at airport arrivals, to reach the Underground or the taxi queue.
I love trains, but let them be trains.