British Rail used to be a fact of British life. Smelly blue carriages with threadbare upholstery that chaffed like the paper in the toilets; fat black ticket-selling women; small cockney ticket-punching men; limp begrudging station buffets selling fairy liquid tea and blue Formica sandwiches.
British Rail was an archaic institution. I am, I tell you, old enough to remember when the Oakleigh Park to Kings Cross line had separate carriages, with doors leading to a corridor, where commuters were forced to sit facing one another. I am old enough to remember when there were gas-lamps in the stations and a coal fire (never lit) in the waiting room; and when there were, for reasons unfathomable, separate Men's and Women's waiting rooms. I have with my eyes in the flesh seen trains powered by diesel, before the electrification of south London and can even remember when ticket offices on suburban lines were routinely manned by human persons, as opposed to ticket machines which can tell the difference between an Adult Day Return and a 1 Day Travel Pass but spit your £5.00 note out if you don't put it in at precisely the right angle.
British Rail had always been there. British Rail would always be there. Like England itself, it was a mess, but by god, it was our mess. Norman Tebbit compared it with the Church of England. Everyone approved of it; everyone wanted it to be a great success, but no-one actually used it if they could possibly avoid it.
British Rail no longer exists. A piece of late Thatcherite insanity de-nationalised it, split it up into several smaller, regional companies and created the charming situation where the firm which owns the actual track and signals (I believe "infrastructure" is the medical term) is separate from the firm which runs the trains. And the attitude to national institutions--to bureaucrats and the government--which British Rail so deftly embodied has died as well.
We tasted the sandwich of the knowledge of good and evil one winter in the early 1980s. The first snow had fallen from the sky, turning the English countryside into a crisp meringue fairyland. Cherubic children were pelting each other with snowballs with pebbles in the middle of them. Most of the railway trains had been cancelled. This happened, and indeed happens, every year: it is a common English lament that "The slightest bit of snow brings the whole ruddy country grinding to a halt". It is frequently pointed out Anarctica gets more snow than we do, and they still manage to keep the trains running. On this particular occasion, an unfortunate BR employee had been dragged into a TV studio. Why does this happen every year, he was asked, and why in particular, did it happen this year when you have just spent a frighteningly large amount of money on sophisticated Norwegian snow clearing equipment. The poor bureaucrat gained immortality for himself by explaining that the Norwegian snow clearing equipment had not helped because it was the wrong kind of snow.
This changed everything. In the old days, when the 8.13 to Finsbury Park failed to arrive a commuter would look up from his paper and scowl.
"Ruddy unions," he would say.
"Ruddy unions", his fellow-traveller would agree. "What is this country coming to?"
Last week, when the Senior Conductor told "customers" that the train was to be delayed for another 30 minutes due to points failure outside Chippenham, I found myself grinning at the person sitting next to me.
"The wrong sort of snow," she said, resignedly.
"The wrong sort of snow", I agreed, and went back to my paper. A whole state of mind has passed away forever.
I sweartogod I was once told that the 7.15 Bristol to Birmingham service was departing late and would continue to lose time owing to the fact that it was the wrong sort of train. The rebranding of public transport evidently did not involve acquiring a sense of irony.
Since the Fall the railway has stopped being a grubby-take-it-or-leave it public institution and become modern. The new look trains all want to be aeroplanes. The big terminuses have been redesigned to look like airports; with departure lounges and huge flat empty spaces surrounded by Burger Kings and Sock Shops and Ben and Jerry's kiosks. Porters' uniforms have been redesigned to look like air hostesses. You get a rather feeble in-flight magazine. On some lines "1st Class" is given an airlineish name like "Business First". The little man who used to stand on the end of the platform and blow his little whistle, chuff, chuff and off we go, no longer has a flag to jiggle. He now has one of those plastic objects looking like lolly pops or table tennis bats. I cannot believe a table tennis bat is easier to jiggle than a flag. But it makes us think that he is an air traffic controller.
They also think they are businesses; it is an object of faith that things are better value for money if they adopt the language of the corporation. Virgin Trains no longer have guards. A man comes over the tannoy at the beginning of the journey to announce that he has Gareth our train manager. Not guard: train manager. Seconds later Kevin, the senior steward seizes the microphone and warns us of the existence of burgers, hot and cold snacks and a wide variety of teas and coffees. I often wonder what would happen if I called their bluff on this point. "You know your wide variety of teas and coffees. Well, can I have one cup of Formosa Oolong and a Decaf Latte made from Guatemalan Elephant Beans."
What I cannot do, unfortunately, is blame privatisation for the people who I have to travel with. All train passengers, other than myself, are scum, vermin of the first order, the sorts of people who you would happily throw out of a moving train. This is why, in the old days of meat pies and trade unions, the men in raincoats and rolled up umbrellas were so very unwilling to speak to their fellow passengers. They listen to ratta-tatta-tatta music on their walkmans; they eat smelly food and talk gibberish to their babies while you are trying to read the paper. They occupy the seat next to you which you had reserved for the comfort of your suitcase. How can one spend the entirety of a two hour train journey discussing the fact that you nearly missed the train, and if you had missed it, it would have been twenty minutes until the next one, although there is sometimes a public phone, in which case, assuming that the man in the buffet is prepared to sell you a phone card, you could have warned Aunty Hilda that you were going to be late? If you are stupid enough to get onto the train at Bristol Temple Meades to kiss your wife goodbye and inadvertently get taken with her to Bristol Parkway (fully five minutes distant) is there much to be gained by railing and abusing every passing official for their incompetence in not having thrown you off the train before it departed? What, they cry, what, would have happened if this were a non stop train to Aberdeen? (Answer: The rather fat guy with the orange tee-shirt sitting opposite you would have laughed very loudly.)
There was once a woman who sent her child to the buffet compartment to buy her a cup of one of the large range of teas coffees hot drinks and other refreshments, and on his return, discovered that the coffee had cost ninety pence. For the next half hour she railed, nattered, nagged and complained that this was daylight robbery. This, she said, removing the cup and sipping the Kenco instant, had better be the best cup of coffee I have ever tasted in my life, and, gulping it down added "It isn't." This was a long journey, and I knew that desperate action had to be taken. I walked to the buffet car, made a purchase of my own, and then sat down alongside the aforementioned madwoman. "At MacDonalds" I began "I think you will agree that a cup of coffee, of a rather inferior brand, can be had for 60p. You have outrageously been charge 90p for a cup of coffee, and thus been forced to expend an extra 30p. Here"--pulling it from the folds of my jacket--"is a Mars Bar, costing 30p. I am making you a gift of it. You are no longer out of pocket on the transaction. Now SHUT UP ABOUT IT."
This raises the painful subject of children on trains. I am opposed to the practice of corporal punishment, and even more strongly opposed to the practice of infanticide, but I feel that any court in the land would make an exception in the case of the parents who had decided to amuse their child on the long journey by giving him a plastic whistle to play with. Great Western have recently introduced "Family Carriages". They are clearly marked by the pretty yellow stickers depicting, I think, clowns and teddy bears. At first I was hopeful. Presumably, these "Family Carriages" would function like "Smoking Carriages." The offending item would be banned in other parts of the train. If someone with a child sat down in my compartment, I would be able to lean over and say "Excuse me, my good man. This is a no-children carriage. Please extinguish that child immediately." But this is not the case. Children are permitted in all parts of the train. And, so far as I can see, there is nothing in the family carriage to help parents travelling with their offspring: no complementary toys or comics, no entertainer, nanny or restraining device. The "Family Carriage" initiative does not extend beyond putting stickers on the carriages.
If you are crossing London, there is also the puritanical moralism of London Transport to contend with. There are signs telling us not to eat cheeseburgers on the train because it annoys other customers; signs telling us not to turn our walkmans up too loud; signs telling us that fare dodgers are really only cheating everybody including themselves and should own up after morning assembly, signs telling us not to give to buskers (because people find them intimidating) and signs telling us not to give to beggars, because many of them aren't really poor at all, but professionals, sponging off the state when they should be out getting a job like decent folks. The posters annoyed me so much I had to start giving to beggars and buskers again, which makes crossing London very expensive, I can tell you.
But still. It is early days yet; the railway is being run by idealists, and you can see what they are aiming at. There is coming a day when all the rolling stock will be re-upholstered; when all locomotives will be repainted in the livery of the Virgin Company; when no train will ever run out of Kenco Coffee or deep filled Egg and Cucumber sandwiches. We will all be given free copies of The Independent, although without the arts section. There will be no more unions, and it will always be the right type of snow. The beggars and the buskers have been swept away, and everyone wears pink socks and eats Ben and Jerrys ice cream. Happy children sit in Family Carriages, and no-one ever forgets any of their personal belongings.
All this is a great comfort to us as we sit in the station, not going anywhere, due to Signal Failure near Didcot Parkway.