Sunday, 8 September 2013

This Isn't The Age Of The Train

British Rail: Sorely missed, even if it was a bloody joke.

Call me a sentimental fool, who doesn't know a good thing when he sees it, but travelling by train today seems to have lost a certain element of glamour and charm.
Okay, so the modern trains of today are fast, sleek and comfortable, and far removed from their predecessors in the 1980's, when back then, in the halcyon days of British Rail, travelling by train was about as enjoyable as suffering an attack of diarrhoea, whilst being sat in a dentist's chair.
Sleek and comfortable may be good, but it's hardly the sort of thing that journeys are made of, is it?
No, what I'm talking about is something completely different.
Back then, if you were lucky enough to get a seat on the Dover Priory to Charing Cross service, you could be fairly certain that some evil bastard would have left a saliva-coated lump of chewing gum on the worn and tatty seat covering, and that the headrest would have been covered in a fine coating of grease, with the occasional hair protruding from it. Then there were the empty beer cans rolling merrily around on the floor, and the liberal sprinkling of newspapers - abandoned gaily on the floor and seats. The windows were covered in grime and graffiti, and the toilet...well - let's not go THERE!

Then, for the arduous journey from Dover to London, what better way to blow one's life-savings than by buying a warm sandwich and a can of even warmer beer from the refreshment trolley. If you wanted two cans of beer and two warm sandwiches, a mortgage would have been necessary to pay for your meal. Then came the ticket inspector - with his green teeth and dandruff - clicking away merrily at the expensive tickets, whilst moaning about life in general.

In summer, the heating was always on at full blast, and in winter the temperature inside the carriage was just above freezing. Then there was the jerking movement of the train, its inability to go very fast for very long, and the constant problem with the brakes. Occasionally, trains would remain static for long periods of time, as British Rail's antiquated signalling system tried desperately to manage numerous trains on the same line, at the same time.

And what about Dover Priory station? Well, it wasn't hell on earth, but having spent many a winter's evening in one of its unheated waiting rooms, hoping that my train would make an appearance, the bowels of Siberia were probably hotter and more inviting.

Just how many  times have I paced the length of the depressingly grey platforms, praying to the Creator of all to send down the line one of British Rail's finest trains - see the above photograph, and marvel at the number 50 service coming into none other than Dover Priory - to deliver me from what must have been one of the worst stations in the south-east of England.

In a time before Costa-lot Coffee and Mister McMuffin invaded us with their crap coffee and even worse blackberry muffins, the station cafĂ© was there to provide weary passengers with tea - at a temperature guaranteed to burn away the interior of one's mouth - and stale apple pie. Then there were the warm sandwiches, the overpriced cans of lager and the other unappetising refreshments, in a time before toasted sandwiches and baguettes with a choice of fillings arrived on the scene.

In summer the stationed was adorned with colourful hanging baskets, which drunken yobbos took great delight in punching, whilst waiting for the last train to London to arrive. The platform hooligans could always be relied upon to make a show just before the arrival of the final train of the day, having filled their bellies with beer in the pub opposite the station. Then, once aboard the train, those same yobbos would merrily empty their bladders over the floor, whilst screaming obscenities at anyone who even dared to give them a dirty look.

Yes, train travel back then was a pleasure, and a pleasure which has been sadly removed by today's train operators. Getting from Dover to London WAS fun, if you didn't mind the stinking carriages, the chewing gum and the miserable ticket inspectors. And who needed fast trains to spoil the ride? After all, what else can beat rolling past the junkyards of south-east London at almost walking pace?

Luke Ryman in the author of "The Londoners" trilogy, in which Cooper and Joy like nothing better than to travel by train. 

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