The magical realists who think transport is working

Most people accept rail delays as inevitable, as if they're travelling through occupied Greece in 1942

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I've always thought Alistair Darling was the perfect example of New Labour's soulless dullness. When he answers a question on television, the correct response from the interviewer should be to wait five seconds after he's finished and say: "Oh I'm sorry, I was in another world. Where were we again?" But his comment on next week's planned rail strike was a piece of prose that suggested a glorious imagination: "The last thing passengers need is a strike AT A TIME WHEN IMPROVEMENTS ARE STARTING TO COME THROUGH ON THE TUBE AND TRAINS." You could probably classify that as magical realism. If he's asked about Palestine he'll say: "The trouble is some people are taking next Tuesday off, and just as everything was clicking into place."

I've always thought Alistair Darling was the perfect example of New Labour's soulless dullness. When he answers a question on television, the correct response from the interviewer should be to wait five seconds after he's finished and say: "Oh I'm sorry, I was in another world. Where were we again?" But his comment on next week's planned rail strike was a piece of prose that suggested a glorious imagination: "The last thing passengers need is a strike AT A TIME WHEN IMPROVEMENTS ARE STARTING TO COME THROUGH ON THE TUBE AND TRAINS." You could probably classify that as magical realism. If he's asked about Palestine he'll say: "The trouble is some people are taking next Tuesday off, and just as everything was clicking into place."

Last week it was revealed that the work required to get the London Underground operating properly will take 20 years, roughly as long as it took ancient Egyptians to build a pyramid. So until then it carries on spluttering and wheezing, the way the train does between Shepherd's Bush and White City, where every day it takes five or six goes before emerging into the station, having taken longer to get there than the original machine that bore the bloody hole. One day it got stuck for so long at the previous station, that almost everyone got out rather than risk going any further. In the spirit of Captain Scott a few stayed on, but I should think there's no more chance of them ever being found again than of finding some poor sod who was buried 120 years ago in a Kentucky mining disaster.

And it's not just the lines that are busted but all the other bits. You arrive at the station one day and find the lift broken, then the next day you get there and the escalator is broken. Until you expect to be given a shovel and told to dig your way down.

By every account the rail service is worse than ever, and it's recently been disclosed that the annual government subsidy to the privatised companies is £5.3bn, which is four times greater than the public money spent when the network was nationalised, a heist that leaves The Italian Job behind as a case of petty theft.

So every day millions of people sit and stare at the back of a warehouse or a row of allotments or whatever is outside the bit where the train has inexplicably ground to a halt. The indication of how common this has become is not that passengers get angry but that most people have learned to accept it as an almost inevitable part of any rail journey, as if they're travelling through occupied Greece in 1942. This was the attitude on one journey I made a few weeks ago from Glasgow to London, which achieved the fine tally of ending six and a half hours late. At one point, stranded just past Stafford for over an hour it would have been a relief if a guard had appeared to tell us: "You should be aware there is a special passenger on board. We are carrying the eminent scientist Doctor Norman Hassenback, who has with him the code for deactivating a secret Nazi weapon that could destroy every city in Western Europe. It seems a leak within British intelligence has led to the track being sabotaged from here to Lichfield, so it may be necessary for all able-bodied men carrying super saver tickets to take up positions and begin firing, though naturally helmets will be supplied to all those who've paid the weekend supplement. We apologise for any inconvenience and hope you take this opportunity to enjoy our delicious hot snacks currently available at the buffet bar."

Eventually we had to go through the procedure the British have become wearily used to in recent years, whereby you get off altogether and stand as part of a bemused crowd in a car park in an area of the country you'd never heard of before, waiting to be herded on to an old green bus. Virgin trains should make a virtue out of this part of its service, giving up on the promise of getting people anywhere and emphasising this mysterious element as a magical adventure. You could be made to get out at Leamington Spa and be pushed to Banbury in a gondola, or have to drive yourself to Hemel Hempstead in a dodgem car. At three hours late, we had to walk across Birmingham to get a different line, where I met Martin Bell, the former war correspondent, going the same way and together we sat on a packed local train that broke down on the way to Coventry. At this point I was convinced I'd landed in a surreal dream and that at the next stop Jimmy Savile would get on selling knocked-off rhubarb.

In a global sense these are trivial things to complain about compared to famine in Sudan. But in a sense it's the same complaint as famine in Sudan. Because the railways are run by shareholders, and for them a rail journey isn't a human experience but a commodity, a source of profit, just as a shareholder in a food company sees a sack of grain not as a surviving family but as a unit of stock. So it doesn't matter how many people are left screaming, if profits are secured, success has been achieved. And if the workforce strikes, it may be trying to protect its members or the passengers, but it's in the way of profit so it's buggering everything up.

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