Going off the rails - Monocolumn | Monocle


A daily bulletin of news & opinion

1 March 2013

Last weekend I took a journey that began perfectly. My taxi driver was smiling, courteous and took the speediest route. The railway station was modern, its recent restoration paid tribute to its glorious heritage and there were no pigeons fouling the seating. My breakfast – porridge – tasted gently of cinnamon. It made me feel like I was being waved off with a little goodbye kiss.

The platform was close by, the barriers up. My seat reservation was at the right end of the train. It was by the window. It faced the right way, with a table and a plug, even wi-fi. It all worked. And bang on time, we departed. But then everything started to unravel.

I was only mildly deafened by the scrape of the train as it clung to the ancient, rusty rails. As she delivered her spiel, the lady on the PA system sounded only marginally bored and with the merest hint she’d break my arm if I didn’t have the right ticket.

Just once did my bag spill its contents as the tilt got too much. And, because it was a cold day, when I visited the facilities, I was almost grateful for the free blast of scorching air in my face when the train lurched so violently it set off the hand dryer. I steadfastly bore the absence of soap. I didn’t bother with the buffet car.

But so what if the journey shook my bones and exposed me to more bacteria than a tropical disease laboratory? None of the other passengers batted an eye. The train had seats, after all. It left on time. It arrived. Isn’t this how trains in Britain just are?

This race to the bottom in transport infrastructure terms means people's expectations have been ground right down. A friendly cab driver or a tasty breakfast is an unexpected surprise. And when it comes to what happens onboard – well, anything short of derailment is bliss.

The UK's travellers need to realise that perfect is done rather better elsewhere. And it didn’t seem to hurt them too much getting there.

All this week on Monocle 24 we’ve been exploring global high-speed rail. Here in the UK, the government is planning to link the country with a new network called HS2. But we are still having trouble embracing something that the rest of the world takes for granted.

There’s predictable protest from the green lobby and more surprisingly from some businesses, who argue that shorter journey times are counter-productive since the modern train is today’s mobile office.

What concerns me is that people are too fixed on this particular project. Worries over whether granny's back garden in Great Missenden will be churned up by HS2 or if Mr White Collar should hop on Skype instead of boarding a train to see his client in the flesh are distracting from the main problem: namely that the UK’s entire transport system is quietly rusting but nobody says anything about it.

At the heart of this is a peculiarly British stoicism. We keep smiling even as we hand over a small fortune for mediocrity or worse. Perhaps if we buck up our expectations, then the state of our railways will follow suit.

All change please.

Emma Nelson is a presenter for Monocle 24.


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