Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Pants Pendolinoed - Exclusive
It's beautiful, sleek and fast and everything a train should be, unless of course it's also expected to function as a conveyance, in which case it fails miserably. I know one's beloved Simon Hoggart of The Guardian is always rabbiting on about cattle refusing to travel on it but I honestly thought he was over-egging the omelette for dramatic effect and that he, however grudgingly, paid his tenner and moved up to first class. Now I get it.
Last Friday I took the Virgin Pendolino to Nuneaton and discovered yet another reason to despise 'Sir' Rich Bastard Brand Name. The Guinness Book of World Records people are interested by the way. Since I am the kind of anal retentive who researches travel well in advance rather than the hell raiser who takes a whim to whiz up north that I expect you all think I am, I managed to secure a fare rather less than the price of a package holiday in Fuerteventura. In the process, I secured a seat.
You may think a seat would be a mandatory requirement if you are travelling on a long distance train to, say Liverpool, and paying over £80 one way as the woman I ended up sitting next to did. Even when I've got a seat booked I arrive early enough to check the big board at least ten times and then ask two separate railway employees to ratify the information on said big board - computers have been known to be wrong and I don't want to start my holiday like poor M Hulot, running up and down stairs.
Just to be on the safe side, after I've studied the little board on the platform and satisfied myself that my intended destination appears before my eyes, I will challenge the conductor with a probing, 'is this the Nuneaton train?' Then, and only then, will I literally run down the platform frantically searching for an alphabetically designated coach before arriving in my seat a full ten minutes before the train is scheduled to depart. My personal motto is 'obsessive compulsives don't miss planes' or, in this case, trains. Besides, years of travelling on the Silverlink Metro have engendered a mistrust in trains leaving at the right time that I doubt I will ever truly overcome.
And it was as well that I did deploy every precaution in my vast arsenal on this particular trip. I assumed defcon 4 when I discovered a woman draped across my seat and the one next to it with a desperation I haven't seen since the Wimbledon queue on Day 1 in the sad days when Tim Henman was still playing. There was always the feeling that if you didn't get in before lunch, he would be out of the tournament.
The woman was easily seen off and I settled into my seat noting it had less leg room than you would expect to get on an under fives Disney ride. Shortly afterwards, the woman who'd paid over eighty quid parked herself anxiously beside me. There was a reserve ticket lodged into the top of the seat but she said there were no other free seats and she could only hope the person who reserved it had prematurely died. Apparently they had died or come to their senses, because she stayed put. She was one of the lucky ones.
Ten minutes into my one hour journey, I got up to go to the toilet. There are two of these serving around 240 people in 'economy' - yes, well - class. They are located at each end of the 'economy' section. The one at our end was broken so I had to hike through three carriages to reach the other. The full horror of a Friday night on the London to Liverpool was revealed as every available standing inch was occupied, including those concertina spaces between carriages. Since a Pendolino crashed not long ago, you might be forgiven for thinking that a nod to passenger safety might have been diplomatic, at least for a time. Chance, fine thing, Rich Bastard profit margin - work it out.
After virtually swinging my way through the carriages on the handrails, I ended up in a queue for the one serviceable toilet catering for approximately 500 people. I count myself extremely lucky that I was able to relieve myself at all. While waiting in the queue, I got chatting to a Liverpudlian guy perched on a fold down dickey seat in front of the toilet. He told me he'd seen it worse. He was drinking from a can of Special Brew which did not appear to be his first for the day so I can only imagine he'd hardened himself to the ordeal rather like a mutant from one of the Star Wars films that exists merely for the purpose of illustrating the relative horrendousness of the experience.
Forty minutes into the journey, I stood in another queue and bought a can of Carlsberg and a packet of Walkers 'Baked' ready salted crisps. It cost me over £3 and I just about managed to gulp it down and call it dinner before journey's end. I remembered the guy with the Special Brew on my return trip yesterday and bought a can of Stella and a packet of Hula Hoops (55% less fat!) from an off licence at a cost of £1.15 before boarding. It was a much more comfortable trip, although I still had to eject someone from my booked seat.
I paid £30 for my return ticket. I regard that as reasonable for a super fast service halfway across the country. Lordy, I can just about get from the West End to Hackney on the bus in that time. I don't always get a seat on the bus, but it's 80p not £80. If I was one of those poor sods relegated to standing over the coupling, I would have had something to say about it.
What makes Rich Bastard Brand Name the most vile and contemptible creature on the planet is (among a vast and diverse array of other things) that his trains have four 'economy' cattle trucks carrying five hundred passengers under the delusion that they are in a civilised country in which they are travelling on regulated public transport and an equal number of first class coaches with about three people in each one. It used to be that if the train was really full, you'd get an announcement saying you could use the first class carriages.
Clever railway people give you the choice of paying a tenner and getting an upgrade. I say clever because once the train has already left, there is no chance whatever of selling the hundreds of empty seats in first class. Did Virgin clock that opportunity? They did not. The sad woman who had forlornly tried to bag my seat told me she'd inquired about an upgrade and was told it was the full price - £161. You can get a return flight to New York for that - and you get a seat, provided you don't fly Virgin obviously.
And what could possibly have possessed the rail regulator to allow an operator to put on an intercity service with an equal number of first and economy class carriages? Has there ever been a time in Britain where that proportion would have accurately reflected the train travelling demographic? So much for demand-led services.
One could draw unfortunate parallels with past scary regimes whose gleamingly advanced railways were the emblem of their supremacy in all things. But then again, the fascists prided themselves on their trains running on time...