That’s progress?

Change is not only good, it’s inevitable – but what happens when the baby is thrown out with the bathwater?

I travel to Edinburgh by train two or three times a year, as a rule. If you’ve never been, rest assured it’s worth the trip. A fine city.

The experience of the train trip ranges from passable to ghastly but is never, these days, a pleasure; largely because, aside from the aesthetic unpleasantness of modern trains, there is no restaurant car. Whoever thought an aisle trolley pushed by a disgruntled employee on the minimum wage, attempting to sell you an unwanted bag of crisps because she needs the commission, is an improvement on a cottage pie and a glass of claret served at a proper table with a white tablecloth, real cutlery and a little vase of flowers – albeit by a bolshie British Rail waiter in a stained white jacket – has no place making such decisions.

Watching the Northumberland coast roll past your dining table as you sup on a postprandial digestif is a pleasure now lost to us. The best that can be said for modern trains is that they’re faster; the dull aching pain of the journey passes relatively quickly. I’ll take slow pleasure over fast convenience any day, thanks; but I can’t stand in the way of progress.

The guard’s van has also been left behind at the depot of abandoned happiness. All trains used to have a guard’s van (if you’ve seen A Hard Day’s Night you’ll remember the lovable mop-tops playing an impromptu gig in a guard’s van). It was effectively a goods carriage, often attached to the back of the train, where you could not only leave large baggage for the duration of your journey but also you could send your heavy items to travel on their own, ahead of you, in the guard’s van of an earlier train, and it would be waiting, when you, well fed and content after your lunch, achieved  your destination. And there would be a porter with a trolley to carry it to the next stage of your journey.

Progress has meant that now anyone who is not able-bodied, and weight-trained, is left attempting to heave their bags into a rack, which is usually already full. Which means luggage is left to become obstacles for the aisle-trolley of the underpaid potato-crisp sales-woman. All this happened when ‘passengers’ became ‘customers’.

Arrival at Edinburgh Waverley reminds you that the entire porter’s profession has been eradicated. If you can’t carry your bags yourself you’re stuffed; there isn’t even a self-drive trolley to be had. A very friendly station employee confirms that there aren’t any trolleys, and cheerfully reassures you that he knows this is a flaw in the slick modern rail transport machine and that he’s told them but they don’t listen.

Fighting your way along the platform and across the concourse, haphazardly avoiding all the shops that have been deliberately placed in your way, dragging your bags behind you, you remember something. Waverley was designed by the victorians in a very practical way. The central feature of the concourse was a circular taxi rank, so that passengers could alight from their train and climb into a taxi with the minimum of fuss, i.e. without having to climb three flights of stairs, go outside into the wind and rain, and walk down the street. Dragging their bags.

Needless to say, progress has seen to it that the taxi rank, while still in evidence, is no longer used. It’s a security issue, apparently; although the consensus at the station seemed to be that the owners wanted to use the space for more shops. Whatever the reason, the nearest rank is now three stories up and down the street.

The taxi driver was very apologetic and understanding.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies


The unforgivable sin


There must be people who can speak with authority about railways. State owned? Private? Build more? Subsidise fares? Rip them all up?

I’m not one of them; all I can offer is opinion. Although clearly my opinion would be more important than anyone else’s.

But one thing is obvious: without exception privatisation has led to visual cacophony. Each company tries to out-dazzle the last and the result is the only unforgivable sin: crafted ugliness.

I had the privilege to stand in the concourse of Brussels Central Station this morning. A beautiful piece of modernism from, I assume, the 1950s – several squadrons of British and American bombers having conspired against the previous building. In its proportions, scale and fabric; a building of stature. A confident building, proud of its purpose and of the railway it represents. Built to last by a company thinking of the long term, not of the next quarter’s balance sheet.

And beautifully free of garishly competing corporate identities.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies


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