When taking the train was a sign of prosperity

The trendy sneer at suburbia and espouse only city living. But we are pretty much all commuters now, whatever the cost

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Last week, the nation's notional "commuters" made their annual appearance in the press. They did their usual party piece, expressing fury at the "10th year of above-inflation fare increases" and "4.2 per cent average increase in season ticket prices".

The Transport minister Norman Baker suggested that rush-hour travel is a "premium product" and people should expect to pay more for it. If we could look into Mr Baker's mind, I suspect we would see an image of a commuter that is 40 years out of date: a prosperous, pin-striped man, umbrella and newspaper tightly furled, who slams the door of his slam-door train with military briskness. In those days, the commuter was the prosperous counterpart to the factory employee who walked to work. But there are no factories left. Today, most of us are commuters.

Stephen Joseph, the executive director of the Campaign for Better Transport, says that British commuting is at an all-time high. "Immediately postwar, we had the New Towns and diffuse development. But the pattern changed in the Eighties and Nineties, and today we have strong city centres accommodating the offices of a service economy. London is growing fast, but we're also seeing big increases in commuting into Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds."

Back in the early Eighties, one Jimmy Savile asserted that "this is the age of the train". But in fact this is the age of the train, with rail use at its highest since the Twenties – when there were few cars about – and it is continuing to rise even in a time of recession. And the biggest increase has been in business travel. There are many factors at work: the train operators will point to their customer care and marketing initiatives; there is road congestion and congestion charging; and young men, in particular, no longer buy cars as a reflex action on leaving university. They can't afford them. Also, you rarely come across "the company car", a type of vehicle now taxed at a level I would call appropriate.

The teleworking revolution that was supposed to transform our lives never really happened. Yes, people work at home, but this is in addition to working in the office and on the train. There is also the phenomenon of "presenteeism": in these turbulent economic times, people want to be able to answer to their name when the register is called.

In light of this, I think commuters deserve a more prominent role than they are currently accorded. The male commuter used to be a stock figure with his bowler hat, newspaper lowered only when some faux pas was committed in the compartment. In a Two Ronnies sketch of 1980, Ronnie Barker played a commuter trying to do the Mephistopheles crossword in the FT. Alongside him in the compartment, Ronnie Corbett attempts The Sun's Junior Coffee Time easy clues crossword. Barker lowers his paper and raises an eyebrow, as Corbett reads out the clue: "They peck holes in your milk bottle tops... something- something-T-S", before Corbett triumphantly pronounces, "Bats!" Barker can't help but correct him, remarking that Sun readers should know the answer.

The commuter represented regularity and conformity, usually for satirical purposes. In the 1961 film The Rebel, Tony Hancock plays a man who, on boarding his morning train, sighs: "Journey number 6,833." He yearns to be an artist of "the Impressionist school". Within this genre, the commuting life went with a job that presented an existential crisis, and Hancock works for the faceless-sounding United International Transatlantic Consolidated Amalgamation Ltd. In The Good Life (1975), Tom Good is so depressed by commuting to a firm that makes plastic toys for breakfast cereal packets that he resigns and attempts to become self-sufficient in Surbiton. In The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976), Perrin is driven to mid-life crisis by commuting from a south London suburb to Sunshine Desserts. Every morning he is late, and presents excuses ranging from the just-about plausible ("Overheated axle at Berrylands") to the not so plausible ("Badger ate a junction box at New Malden" or "Escaped puma, Chessington North").

One of the last pieces of commuter commentary was a book in 1984 written under the pseudonym Tiresias called Notes from Overground. With exquisite melancholia, it recorded a 20-year daily commute from Oxford to London: "When the train passes any kind of sporting activity ... invariably nothing is happening. The bowler is always about to bowl, the referee about to restart play, the archer poised to shoot. Nothing takes place before our profane gaze. At our uncouth advent, the initiates freeze in a tableau vivant, waiting for us to pass before they resume celebration of the mysteries. This... phenomenon underlines the lack of rapport between our unnatural train existence and normal life outside." Is the commuting life really unnatural? We ought, at least, to ask the question.

Next Wednesday, we will be encouraged to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, whose fares also rose last week. The first line was the Metropolitan. Its chief begetter, the lawyer and social reformer Charles Pearson, believed that in commuting – he called it "oscillating" – lay the answer to the misery of the London poor, who were packed into the rookeries of what is now considered desirable central London. He had noted the way they enjoyed Sunday excursions to the country, often keeping a flower in a broken teapot on the mantelpiece as symbolic of a better life.

The interwar expansion of the Underground was an attempt to promote growth, but the net result was to make London a commuter city. As Mr Aked observes in Arnold Bennett's novel A Man from the North: "Why, the suburbs are London!" Usually, the developers followed the Underground lines. Only in the case of the Metropolitan did the railway company itself build the houses. In the Twenties, the Met created Metroland in north-west London within a "verdant realm" of "gentle, flower-decked downs". So arose Neasden and other dormitories. Metroland destroyed the countryside that was its selling point.

It has long been commonplace to sneer at "suburban" values, even though most of us live there. Ever since the Eighties, the aspiration of the fashionable has been to live centrally, while the synonym for black youth culture, to which most of white youth aspires, is "urban".

Commuters have become invisible by virtue of their ubiquity. And there is another consideration. Under the intense pressure of a competitive, materialistic and globalised world, we can't afford the luxury of questioning our economic roles. The problem today is how to get into the rat race, not how to get out of it. The fact is that we all work for United International Transatlantic Consolidated Amalgamation Ltd, and there is little more to be said on the matter.

Andrew Martin's book, 'Underground Overground: a Passenger's History of the Tube' is published in paperback on Thursday

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