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Train set who really are not so awful

How the 8.17 disproved minister
ON FRIDAY morning, the 8.17 Orpington to Charing Cross train left on time carrying two men who talked with great purpose about computer systems. ("Doesn't do video capture!" "A PC? I said `Stick it up your arse, mate'", and so on). For all their passion, they spoke softly and did not disturb a neat man next to them, who, for 25 minutes, pressed his finger hard against his right nostril while reading the Daily Telegraph - as if to stop something falling out.

A middle-aged woman read a hardback novel written in a genre hard to place. Seen over her shoulder: ". . . The next time Edwina Gordon summoned the energy to take her head - a willing chrysanthemum by now - to the Alex salon, her greeting from Mr Frederick was more cordial . . ." On the following page: "The Chelsea set goes to town - and how."

Last week, Steven Norris, the transport minister, caused great offence by calling these people - people using public transport - dreadful. Addressing the Commons Environment Select Committee, he made the point that cars were "the only door-to-door system you have," and went on: "You have your own company, your own music - and don't have to put up with dreadful human beings sitting alongside you.''

On the evidence of the 8.17 from Orpington, he was wrong. These people were nice. It was good to see them.

Privately, many would probably concede that Norris has a point. There is something to be said for a limousine, and everyone has at some time sat opposite someone too loud, too drunk, sexually irresponsible - or indeed dead, as happened in the 1960s to the transsexual celebrity April Ashley on the London Underground. (This explained why the man had held her gaze for so long).

But if the minister had been travelling into London from Kent two days ago on the 8.17 he would have encountered nothing more dreadful than schoolboys in a sneezing competition ("Achoo"; "Achoo! ""ACHHOOOOO!"; then laughter). People read Madame Bovary, and examined their make-up.

They took extreme care not to allow their newspaper to touch another person's newspaper. They had heeded, perhaps, that morning's Prayer for the Day on Radio 4. The notion of loving one's neighbour, it was explained, should extend to neighbours on all rail networks.

As the train drew into Elmstead Wood, a middle-aged male passenger defended the reputation of public transport users. He said: "We're not sheep! We're not pigs!" but then ran out of animals. Another man tried to link Mr Norris's comments to his libidinous reputation. (Norris has acknowledged three out of five alleged extramarital affairs) "You can't have sex on the bus," explained this passenger.

The train accelerated with a series of soothing noises and overlapping bleeps. Elsewhere in the carriage, a woman in her early twenties was quietly telling two friends: "I said, `What the hell is that?' And he said, `It's your dinner . . .'"

At Charing Cross, passengers left as a single sturdy body of commuting men and women. But by the time it had reached the Tube platforms, students and tourists had changed the texture of the crowd. A small white dog got on at Borough. At Bank, an American couple in Burberry checked hats looked at their watches, then hugged each other, as if following a burdenesome hugging course.

The man next to me marked examination papers on metabolism and nutrition. Miss C E Anderson, scoring 60, had done pretty well.