Brian Viner: 'Travelling by train offers a vivid insight into the British condition'

Home And Away
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The Independent Online

This week's Home And Away is brought to you from carriage G, the Quiet Carriage, of the 09.09 First Great Western service from Newport to Paddington. The first leg of my journey was from Leominster to Newport on the 07.58 Arriva Train Wales service, in the Noisy Carriage, where three youths loudly compared notes on how drunk they were last night.

Happily, they disembarked at Hereford, but a middle-aged man with a moustache then picked up the baton, talking 50 per cent too loudly into his mobile phone about the merits of three people called Daniella, Simon and Ben, all on a shortlist for a vacancy in his company, which may or may not be called Plonkers Consolidated. Daniella comes from Edinburgh, I can tell you, while Simon plays golf, and Ben is prematurely grey. And if any of them would like to contact me regarding their prospects, I can enlighten them further. As can about 20 other people whose journey through the Welsh borders unfolded with the same soundtrack. At Newport I got off with a woman with a nose stud and as we landed on the platform she smiled at me and said: "I think Ben's got it in the bag, what do you think?" I laughed and said that Daniella was my choice. "Yes, but she's got to relocate," my nose-studded friend pointed out, with mock solemnity.

I have often reflected that travelling by train offers a vivid insight into the British condition, but my fellow Herefordshire-dweller Matthew Engel has, in a manner of speaking, gone several stations further, writing a brilliant new book called Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey To The Soul of Britain. Coincidentally, he was on his way to Paddington via Newport when he hit upon the idea, shortly after legging it between platforms at Newport because the Arriva Trains Wales service had unaccountably stopped dead outside the station, almost making him miss his connection with the First Great Western from Swansea to London.

This unaccountable stopping just outside Newport is the bane of my life no less than Matthew's. The train chugs along, lulling you into heady anticipation of time to spare, perhaps even time for a cup of tea and a croissant from Upper Crust, when suddenly it grinds to the kind of unequivocal halt that suggests Butch Cassidy and his gang might be up ahead, pointing guns. And of course there's no chance of anyone holding the train you and dozens of others are hoping to catch, because Arriva Trains Wales and First Great Western have, I'm practically certain, a "bugger the passengers" pact. Not, of course, that catching the desired train guarantees arrival at the desired time. As Scylla and Charybdis were to Odysseus, who could get past one but not the other, so, to the intrepid First Great Western voyager, are signal failure at Didcot Parkway and faulty overhead power cables just outside Slough.

The beauty of Eleven Minutes Late, I should add, is that it combines a sustained and very funny rant about the chaotic state of Britain's privatised rail system with huge affection for the romance of the train, and indeed with a beguiling history of rail travel. It starts with the epically hapless William Huskisson MP, illustrious former President of the Board of Trade, whose story should be familiar to anyone with a keen sense of irony. For on September 15, 1830, the opening day of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and the day after assuring his constituents in Liverpool that railways were a marvellous invention, Huskisson fell, fatally, under the wheels of George Stephenson's celebrated Rocket. As Matthew wryly points out, Huskisson's tragic accident that day made him one of those figures, like the archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose entire life has been eclipsed by the manner of his death. And I don't suppose it is of any consolation to his ghost, forlornly wandering the tracks at Newton-le-Willows, to know that train travel would later provide the descendants of his constituents with one of their most colourful euphemisms. To this day, the act of coitus interruptus is known in Liverpool as "gerring off at Edge Hill", Edge Hill being the penultimate stop before Lime Street station. I love train metaphors, and that's one of my favourites. Indeed, I love trains in general. If only I didn't have to depend on them to get around.