Paul Vallely: Trains, planes and northerners

'We have gone beyond the camaraderie now, and into the anger'

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Even on the plane. There was an enervated silence on the last British Midland evening flight from Heathrow to Manchester the other night. Regular travellers have long since exhausted their desire to exchange horror stories about rail chaos. These are people who cross the North-South divide two or three times a week and who some time ago discovered that talking about it all only fed their barely suppressed irritation. Even those who normally fly are exasperated at how difficult it is to get a seat now.

Even on the plane. There was an enervated silence on the last British Midland evening flight from Heathrow to Manchester the other night. Regular travellers have long since exhausted their desire to exchange horror stories about rail chaos. These are people who cross the North-South divide two or three times a week and who some time ago discovered that talking about it all only fed their barely suppressed irritation. Even those who normally fly are exasperated at how difficult it is to get a seat now.

There is great fun to be had from other people's misery. Which is why the papers are full of tales about how it took nine hours to get to Nottingham and other "rail journeys from hell". What a delicious vicarious shock we get from hearing about the three-train-breakdowns and the 2am transfers to rickety old school buses. Even if it happened to us we would get our money's worth by regaling dinner parties with the story.

But things look rather different when such grim realities weave themselves malevolently into the everyday fabric of our life. What is becoming clear now here, in a part of the country where many are economically dependent on their daily links with London 200 miles away, is that the current rail debacle is beginning to cost the economy millions in extra costs and lost business. And that mild aggravation is giving way to a bottled-up wrath which threatens to explode before long.

In recent days the tone has begun to change. Once the crowd on the platform at Manchester Piccadilly would cheer only half-ironically when the last train to Sheffield chugged belatedly into the station. Passengers would exchange cutting quips about Virgin Rail to bolster their We-English-Are-At-Our-Best-In-Adversity mood. In pubs people would vie to exchange the worst Rail Misery saga.

Now something has snapped. This week an e-mail went round the BBC's Manchester office suggesting that its 700 staff should boycott Virgin Rail after one of its producers, Bob Dickinson, was knocked unconscious at Euston in the scrum to board a train. He fell down the gap between the train and the platform, injuring his head and cutting his leg. "For the first time on a London-Manchester train I actually felt events went beyond 'ridiculous', 'uncomfortable', or 'unpleasant', and began to verge on dangerous," he told his colleagues. "I could have been more seriously injured, for instance, when I fell, especially if the train had moved, even momentarily."

Interestingly, no one came to the fallen man's aid. "The rules of social behaviour get suspended in a crisis, and not always for the better", said one of the passengers on the last flight home from Heathrow. He was Cary Cooper, the professor of occupational psychology at Umist, one of the few people who could conceivably be benefiting from all this madness; presumably sales of his books on stress must be up. I told him Dickinson's tale of woe. It was not the only aberration. There had almost been a fist-fight in the train's Quiet Coach between those who had gone there seeking silence and those who felt that the general railway disorder must automatically waive the rules against the use of mobile phones.

"Stress has two main causes - change and an inability to control things," said Cooper. It is as if the rail bosses had themselves secretly taken some psychologist's advice on how best to vex the nation. For they are offering not just slow trains but inordinate numbers of breakdowns and cancellations. And, to cap it all, a seeming inability by train companies, station officials and rail authorities to co-ordinate their miserably inadequate activities. Change, and an inability to control things. Sounds as though they have got Cooper's recipe just right. How long, one wonders, before the pressure-cooker explodes?

There are those, of course, who, as ever, have seen their salvation in the motor car. But the businesses that have switched entirely to road are no happier than those that chose to let the train add to the strain. The M6 ground to a halt the other day from sheer pressure of traffic. Delays have become routine. Business folk tell tales of setting out for London and turning back two hours later having got no further than Sandbach Services 20 miles down the motorway. Those who get as far as Birmingham encounter jams that make them as late for meetings in London as the trains do. Schemes to meet southern clients halfway have been no more successful. "We went to Stafford but they were an hour and a half late getting there too," one businessman said.

Across the board all this is taking its toll, according to Angie Robinson, chief executive of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. "It's affecting services and manufacturing alike," she said. "Costs are increasing. The post is becoming more unreliable. Work is being rescheduled and people are putting off pitching for new business." Any one of those three can cost a business dear. Additional airfares are deducting significant amounts from the bottom line for many companies.

"I charge £500 a day," said one consultant, "so there's no profit left after you've paid £250 for a plane ticket." Extra hotel bills do the same. "For a morning meeting we have to send everyone down the day before and put them up overnight," said another businesswoman. "If they have an afternoon meeting too, the have to stay over a second night. Previously they could have got the 7.30am train and done it all in a day for a £150 rail ticket." First class letters are now taking up to six days. "The post cost me a £250,000 contract," one businessman told me. "What are we supposed to do - courier everything?"

Meantime as many as half of the decisions on new business due to be taken in November and December have been postponed. "A lot of things are just on hold until January," according to Annie Miller, the boss of Xxist.com, an internet marketing company based in Manchester, "but people's patience won't extend beyond then." Hers included. From next week she is sending staff to London on a weekly basis, and hiring an apartment for them to cut down on hotel bills. "It was bad enough before, doing business from the North-west," she said with evident impatience. "People assume that if you're not based in London you can't be any good." Her company opened a London office to combat that prejudice, even though it was staffed just with salespeople and all the creative work was done in Manchester. Now she is thinking of relocating staff, temporarily at least. "If clients in London only get to see the sales staff they know they are being handled as opposed to dealt with." If only Britain's rail companies were doing as much as that.

Some change we can live with. You will be refreshed to hear, contrary to received wisdom, that the earth has never been flat in the estimation of right-thinking men and women. On Radio 4 today a calumny is exposed, to wit that the thinkers of the Middle Ages laboured under the dark misapprehension that, if you went far enough across the sea, you would fall off the edge of the world. Such a view was held by two eccentric thinkers but most medievals apparently knew quite well that the world was round.

So where did we get this notion that holds the Molesworthian status of being a fact, "as any fule kno"? Apparently - according to the amateur medievalist and former Python Terry Jones, in a radio series entitled The Medieval Ball which begins today - it came from a 19th-century biography of Columbus. It was written by a pro-Darwinian anxious to show that the anti-scientific credentials of his churchmen opponents were of long pedigree. Thus he painted a picture of obscurantist Spanish theologians issuing such a warning to the adventurer. But it was a work of propagandist fiction. And It is not the only myth that Jones dispels.

For years moderns have poured scorn upon drawings like Hereford Cathedral's 13th-century Mappa Mundi, chortling that the primitives of the Dark Ages had a pretty rum sense of geography. But Jones produces a much more geographically accurate map from two centuries earlier and makes a convincing case that the Mappa Mundi is not a map (the medievals, he notes, had no separate word for it) so much as a theological depiction of not just space but also time. It did not show a route across Europe, but rather one to Heaven, for its message was that, in the end, Man should turn his back on the vanity of the material. The medievals were not so daft as we thought, he concludes. How could anyone who has been in a 12th-century cathedral, or revelled in the glory of 13th-century polyphony, ever have thought they were? How easily we all are led.

Modernity isn't all it's cracked up to be anyway. You may remember my fight against the plan to pull down five fine Victorian houses near where I live in Sale to make way for two blocks of 40 modern flats. Well, we lost. The houses have been demolished.The builders involved were Bellway Homes. A reader tells me they are now up to far greater mischief. They want to pull down the splendid old Hither Green Hospital in Lewisham, one of the country's few surviving turn-of-the-century fever hospitals, built by Edwin Thomas Hall, and whose grounds are full of rare trees. I will pay a visit next time I am in London and report back. Virgin Trains permitting.

p.vallely@independent.co.uk

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