The really special seat

This is a really, really special seat.

Super Hitachi and Great Western Railway have worked really hard to cater for all people and the agoraphobics will delighted with this wonderful seat. For a deliocious first class fare in excess of £200 (£359 if you want flexibility and a Travelcard), you too can enjoy none of the scenery of the Great Western Railway.

As you leave Bristol Temple Meads, you won’t get a glimpse of Brunel’s wonderful train shed, nor, if you crane your neck will you get a glimpse of the Clifton Suspension Bridge or the wonder of a hot air balloon drifting across the city.

You will be oblivious to the River Avon meandering to your left or the mist over the water meadows around Saltford. The dreamy spires of Bath Spa will be shielded from you and a wall of plastic will separate you from the Vale of the White Horse.

There will be the good fortune, however, of not glimpsing Swindon.

Didcot’s brutal industrial beauty won’t be seen, neither will the splendid sight of a copper-topped engine steaming gently in the railway centre. You will be oblivious to the River Thames and the early activity morning of it’s inhabitants. Later, you will also miss the opportunity to spy Brunel’s bridge over the river at Maidenhead (or to flick the bird at our strong and stable leader).

On the approaches to London you can only imagine the aeroplanes around Heathrow and the excitement of a glimpse of the Wembley Arch is something you’ll forego.

The tube joins us at Acton, not that you’d know and the bustling railway yards are for the enjoyment of everyone else on the train, but not you.

Finally, the nice guard announces it’s time for you to gather up your belongings and dive in the depths of the big smoke. You awake from your comfort blanket of plastic, reassured that you have avoided the world in it’s entirety for the last hundred minutes. Only the huge dent to your bank balance will remind you of this.

Please enjoy your journey.

Ps padding on your seat is extra.

It starts with ‘W’….

So, it’s a dark cold Friday evening and I am onboard the 1930 departure to Weston-super-Mare.

The preceding service has been cancelled and my train is two coaches shorter than it should have been, plus it’s a Friday, so this one is going to be pretty full. And it is, unpleasantly so. Inevitably there is a strong whiff of hot food and someone, obviously, is eating a stinking pasty in my vicinity. Someone else is playing a game on their phone with the volume on full (if ever there was a crime worthy of the death penalty, then it is this) and then there another watching something hilarious on their laptop which immediately rules out Mrs Brown’s Boys.

It’s crowded, smelly and uncomfortable. The only upside is, as far as I can see, that the crisp munching Darth Vader that sat opposite me this morning is absent.

The man next to me (TMNTM) is one of those special treats that decides to flop into his seat with his backpack still on, then fidget uncontrollably with the frankly impossible task of trying to get comfortable. This clearly isn’t going to happen ever on a Great Western train as, for them, they mistook the word ergonomic for economic thus deciding that padding on seats was an unnecessary expense. The only opportunity they have so far missed has been the creation of First Group Chiropractors who would, without doubt, do a roaring trade at every major station.

As ever, I digress.

So, TMNTM, unable to sit properly, adopts a seated position like a praying mantis and decides to eat his dinner, which is buried deep in one of several large carrier bags at his feet. I’m convinced he must be getting off at Reading but no, worse is to come; he pulls not one but two mobile phones from his pocket; setting one up to watch a film and the other, oh gawd, is for FaceTiming his (I assume) girlfriend. This is awkward as she appears to be in bed and I feel like I’m intruding in the early stages of foreplay for their weekend ahead.

Now FaceTime will get a deserved rant of its own at some point but who on earth thinks that absolutely anyone would want to be privy to a couple’s pre-rutting positioning? Why does anyone think it’s acceptable to share such intimate conversation with half a dozen enforced neighbours?  And what did his girlfriend think of the sound emanating from the man playing a game on his phone?

In between the several FaceTime calls, he switches to his other phone to watch his TV programme and, inevitably, the sound is set too high so I’m forced to put my headphones in just to drown the tinny sounds emerging from his brain ( reason number two for the death penalty).

Finally, our train entered the twilight zone of Wiltshire, the place where 2G is a fantasy and TMNTM cedes defeat with technology and decides he is going to have a sleep instead. So, he tries to lean back but has anyone ever managed to sleep lying on their back with a backpack still on? Undaunted, he pulls the little table down and puts his head on his folded arms, fidgeting left to right and walloping me with his backpack approximately every ninety seconds.

It is fair to say I am looking forward to the train’s arrival in Bristol greatly as, I cannot understate this, TMNTM is pissing me off massively, He’s in the top three of all time worst fellow passengers ever ( I still think the lady picking her feet retains top position followed by Wolverhampton death metal lady) and I’m positively willing him evil.

I’m delighted to see we’ve arrived at Bath. Ten minutes to go. TMNTM cranes his neck to look out of the window. Puzzled, he turns to me and asks ‘what time does this train get to Worcester Shrub Hill?’

I open the champagne.

Seat A73, a eulogy.

I’ve written before, and no doubt will again, about the imminent replacement on Great Western mainline of the High Speed Train (HST). Gradually they are now being phased out and replaced by the shiny new Hitachi electric trains (don’t be fooled though, they run mostly on diesel and go slower) and so, forty years of railway history comes to an end. It won’t be the end of the HST but, for me, my regular trips to London will succumb eventually to Japanese trains and a train which I first travelled on as an enthusiastic nine year old train spotter, will cease to be a part of my working week.

In many ways the HST has been ruined by First Great Western over the years. The current ‘tombstone’ seats and fluorescent ‘interrogation room’ lighting have done little to improve an ambience that once saw comfy seats line up with windows and journeys that didn’t involve a trip to the chiropractor to rectify my sciatica after one hundred minutes sat in possibly the most uncomfortable seats ever invented (though I suspect Thameslink passengers will have a good case to disagree on this point). There are little gems remaining though; seats A01-08 are designed to accommodate the less well abled and have generous leg room. Seat A73 is particularly special though.

This is the railway equivalent of the naughty step. This is seating of choice for the chronically anti-social. For those with no friends. It’s the first seat on the train home, it’s the last one to arrive in London and that makes it rebellious. It’s occupant can peruse the whole of coach A and is safe in the knowledge that no-one, bar the train crew, an occasional inexperienced traveler or the commuter congo, will pass you by. No-one will try to push their ridiculous wheelie suitcase by you, no oversized backpack will wallop you as it’s oblivious host barges by, no-one will clobber you with their over-laden wares from Oxford Street.

Best of all, no-one will sit next to you. No barging elbows, no chompers, no apple eaters, no keyboard killers, no pastie eaters, no smelly people. NO-ONE EATING CRISPS. No-one.

It’s a blissful retreat in a chaotic world. Seat A73 will be misssed.

Trains, planes and automobiles. And a taxi.

I have to admit it but, on reflection, it was a pretty silly idea and if anyone had realised my plan, they would have undoubtedly tried to talk me out of it.

I was to spend the top of the day at a funeral in the West Country and by the evening the plan was to end up in Edinburgh, checked in to a nice hotel and with a nice bottle on the go. The obvious plan would be to catch the evening flight to avoid any rush and guarantee my arrival in Scotland. However, my natural inclination is always to make my life just that little more complicated than it needs to be; with a little research I realised that the mid-afternoon flight from Bristol is due to arrive at Edinburgh at 1700, so, with a sharp exit and a short taxi ride, I should be able to have a ride on a train I’d been seeking out for a while and, should, if everything lined up nicely, depart the local station to Edinburgh Airport, South Gayle, at 1718. A quick check of Google maps showed a ten minute car journey so that was it. Another silly plan duly hatched.

Fast forward to then day and I attend the funeral and reception, it is of course unbearably sad. I realise that my escape and adventure is actually very well timed, I’m starting to look forward to it. Especially the train, which I shall refer to a ‘number six’. So my friend (who very kindly agreed to accompany me and provide the vehicle for the day’s travel) and I depart in plenty of time for the short hop to the airport. Indeed, we’ve left in such good time that we feel we have time to casually pull into the local farm shop for a cup of tea and browse around their displays of exquisitely over-priced wares. Though the cup of tea was fairly priced, I hasten to add.

And it is, I must point out at this point, a Friday during the summer holidays. On the M5. In Somerset.

Now, I haven’t owned a car for a couple of years (of which I will write separately) so had quite forgotten, indeed totally erased from my memory, the wondrous joy that is the M5 in Somerset on a Friday in the summer. We set the sat-nav which happily told us that I’d arrive at the airport with nearly two hours to spare and I happily planned a nice glass of red in the bar before wandering casually to board.

Then we joined the M5.

Or rather we joined the slip road that joined the M5.

Our post-farm shop self congratulatory smugness evaporated at the sight of a Blackpool illuminations scale of lighting, a beautiful harmony of glowing brake lights. It’s ok, we thought, in a way that I can use to convince myself that this situation really isn’t as bad as it looks… I mean, look! I’m sure that car over there just moved! Sat-nav’ expected time of arrival started to creep toward gate closing time…. we edged onto to motorway and accelerated in a way that a slug spotting a tasty piece of lettuce would, elbowing our way into late two and slipping into second gear. And so we moved for the next mile.

By the time we’d flown past Bridgwater at thirty miles per hour, I decided to go the back road across the levels and swung the car off the motorway and into 1956. Inevitably a tractor with a pile of bales at forty five degrees slowed our progress (I’m actually convinced these things lay in wait for anyone looking remotely in a hurry and not-from-round-these-parts) though, as looked westward to the motorway, we were still moving faster. Meanwhile, our arrival time moves past check-in time and (regular readers will have previously imbibed tales of my love of West Country roads) there is the full range of people pulling out in front of me and accelerating to twenty five miles per hour, more tractors, white van man driving so slowly he couldn’t-possibly-take-that-next-job, swaying sales reps of conference calls and (my favourite) Bert and Ada spending the afternoon ‘motoring’.

Eventually the airport comes into view, check-in has in theory closed and my trip is ruined. Undaunted, I dump the car (thank you my friend for the lift) and sprint (in the same way a walrus sprints) through the airport to departures, knocking people lying on the floor in my wake. I think I even got a ‘strike’ as I skittled a whole family with one flail of elbows and knees. I held my boarding pass to the scanner and the gate opened! I barged my way through security and fairly lolloped through duty free and to the gate. The lady on the gate, eyeing the big sweaty hyperventilating middle-aged in front of her, made a wisecrack about cutting it fine. A swift right-hook dealt with her and I jumped on the plane as the stewardess pulled the door to.

And relax. Well, at least for an hour as I absolutely had to be on that 1718 from South Gyle.

By the time we landed in Scotland, I’d regained my breath and was ready to leg it through arrivals to the taxi rank. Here I went through the bizarre ritual of having to order the taxi, having first registered with the company, and then wait for the chosen car (of dozens waiting) to come and pick me up. It’s now 1703.

‘So you want to go to South Gyle station?’ Says the driver, who we’ll call Hamish.

“Yes please”

“Why?”

“Because I’d like to catch a train”

“You can catch one from here” Hamish helpfully informs me, pointing at Edinburgh Park station.

“I want to catch the one from South Gyle. At 1718”

“I don’t think we’ll make that. Edinburgh has the worst traffic in the world you know”. (I think we know that Somerset actually holds this accolade)

I say nothing. I don’t want to engage Hamish but he persists.

“Where are you going on the train?”

“Glenrothes”

“Well I could just drive you straight there!”

‘No. I want to be on the 1718 train”

“We’re going to miss it”. Of course we are as it’s now 1712 and Hamish is driving at forty five miles an hour on the motorway.

So I ask if it’d be easier to drive to Inverkeithing?

“But that’s in FIFE” Hamish responds as if I’d asked him to take me to the nearest leper colony.

“Then we’ll stick with South Gyle”. 1715.

At 1717 we pull up. Hamish parks conveniently two hundred yards from the station so I tell him to keep the change from the tenner as thanks for his help. It was a £9.90 fare and I still felt I was being over-generous.

I’m too late to get a ticket so rush to the platform and to watch the train arrive, bang on time. I was stressed, sweaty and out of breath but, most importantly and despite everyone’s best efforts, it was 1718 and I was at South Gyle station. I would finally travel behind ‘number six’.

The train came into view. The culmination of several hours frenzied travelling and stress. But I’d made it, now I could travel behind the elusive ‘number six’. I dug my camera out of my bag, waiting to record the moment. I was actually now rather excited.

The train got closer.

It it rolled.

It was ‘number seven’.

So I didn’t board.

You know the sort….

It’s a really, horrible wet day here. Half the morning was spent in the GP’s waiting room (apparently the GP is running only eight minutes late, which means I must have arrived very early), my work is backing up and I have a soaking left foot after I stood on one of those special paving slabs designed to disguise a giant puddle and send a jet of water up the leg of the next person unfortunate to lump their size eleven on it.

My train to London eventually becomes the 1300, which is something ordinarily I would look forward.to; light loading, guaranteed double seat, the chance to actually have a relaxing lunch and a nice mid-afternoon arrival in the office. The WiFi normally works too.Except I’m grumpy.

Maybe my brain is acutely trained but I just sense when someone is going to be a pain.

Platforms 13 and 15 at Temple Meads are the London platforms, accessed by the subway and the traveller is treated usually to the resplendent sight of two examples our finest 1970s technology, the High Speed Train sat, one at each platform. The one on the left, clearly marked the 1300 to Paddington, on the right the 1330 departure.

Today’s subject is what I could refer to  Clifton or Bath types, a Lady in her mid-50s and her son in his 20’s, hee-hawing too loudly at each other and walking so far abreast as to block the entire staircase. At the summit, oblivious, faced with a choice of two identical trains, they come to an abrupt halt. Flummoxed and unable to read the very clear signage, they decide that just standing and blocking the staircase is the way forward. Luckily, legendary Temple Meads staff member, Wayne, spots the blockage and explains that the train on the left departs at 1300, the one on the right, at 1330. To which Mother responds “But which one gets there first?’..  (though, based on the last couple of years on this line, it’s a potentially fair question).

Further confusion ensues when, confronted with a near-empty train, they are informed by the very helpful Guard that coaches C and D are the wrong way round. So, if you’re reservation says it’s in Coach C, you’ll actually find it in Coach D and vice versa. Well, he might as well as asked them to kindly explain the difference between nuclear fission and fusion before they can board whilst waving a light sabre. It’s all over for them. Having managed to reach the train, now they have to perform a small calculus to find their seat.

They do what to them is the obvious thing. They sit three seats in front of me in Coach A. And resume the hee-hawing.

I consider my options; music or do they both get issued a straight red? Well the decision is taken from me by a lovely lady who is down the coach quicker than a Brexiteer escaping a logical question. And off they go. I almost feel sorry for them. They now have to choose two seats out of the three hundred free on the train and I just know it will ruin their journey.

I’m back on the 0830 next time.

 

Schrödinger’s CAT

Funny where you end up isn’t it? Ever experienced one of those ‘WTF?’ moments where you end up in a very odd place and a strange time of the day? A frosty Carmarthen at the crack of dawn is one of those places, as is Edinburgh at 6am, especially when one realises that the train I’ve come to catch has been cancelled.

It’s a been at interesting weekend, the quiet coach has been an absolute oasis of calm amongst the drinking masses of Welsh rugby fans. And goodness, what drinking! The train arrived in Edinburgh awash with the carnage wreaked by hundreds of Oliver Reed wannabes yet no damage was caused if you ignore the high tide of Strongbow slopping around coach K. Sacks of empty cans and bottles line the corridors and the staff emerge, blinking, from behind their sandbags in the buffet car. The Transport Police meet the train and are mobbed by middle-aged orange ladies in dragon onesies wanting selfies.

Edinburgh is braced for the red onslaught but the only damage is empty barrels and the tide recedes after the match as the masses leave the City Centre for their more respectably priced Premier Inns. The hordes of French fans wander the streets looking a little puzzled as Dublin proves nothing like they expected it to be and the City won’t take their Euros.

By Monday morning what passes for normality starts to return; the lady on the platform with the sparkly shoes and pooch on the a long extendable lead, the commuter snoring soundly asleep under his bobble hat and the lady cramming as much yoghurt into her mouth as she can.

Anyway, I got up early to catch my train, expecting a rather sleek little CAT, and it didn’t show. Just simply cancelled. A no-show. So, I wondered, was it not there because I was? Would it have been there if I wasn’t? These are important questions which need answering….

Crisps

I will discuss food on trains at a later point and in more detail.

This evening I have to discuss crisps and crisps alone.

I have one of my favourite seats, A4. A window seat with additional leg room for those with the improved body frame, like me. Seat  A8 is directly in front of me and has been occupied by picnic-man. In the reflection in the window I can see a couple of packs of sandwiches, still and sparkling water and a family bag of Sensations. Sweet chilli flavour too. (Picnic-man comes in many forms but his prawn sandwich choice would indicate a resident of Bath).

I digress, again. Now, don’t get me wrong, the sweet chilli Sensation is a fine snack, but a snack to be savoured away from fellow travellers. Firstly, they come in the world’s crinkliest and loudest packet. Just being in it’s vicinity creates a cacophony enough to wake a child from it’s deepest sleep. Then follows the opening ritual, follow by the rummage. Oh no, you can’t just eat the crisp on top, you have to have a little delve into the packet for maximum effect. Worse is to come, the crisp eater will make a strange inhalation driven snort as they ram the chosen piece of potato product into their expectant and cavernous gob.

But the worst is still to come. The crunch and chew. Now some people can do this skilfully quietly (I like to think I am one of these sorts) but picnic-man isn’t one of these. He’s a cruncher-extrordinaire. Sound waves reverberate the length of the train as he gets stuck into his masticulation. I grimace, realising that we have a whole family pack to go through yet which will take him until at least Swindon. The faint odour of sweet chilli starts to prevail…

Welcome to the 1930.

I’m sorry sir, you have terminal Penge.

It’s ten past nine and I’m in Penge. I shouldn’t be in Penge. I don’t even know where Penge is. Does Penge give you itchy skin?

It all started so well. Half seven and I was on the Embankment, a beautiful low-lit, frosty London vista and I’m feeling good. I have a short hop down to the shiny new office and a full day ahead of me. Something bothered me though, you know that moment when you sense a disturbance in the force? An eastbound service arrived at Tower Hill and just a few people alighted. That moment when you check your phone, just to make sure it’s not Sunday.

So, I was looking forward to coffee and breakfast before my train as I climbed the steps up the concourse at Charing Cross. No trains. Very few people. The departures board was flashing like a 70’s disco, people grooving as the words ‘cancelled’ and ‘delayed’ flashed around the station. Go to Victoria they said! A derailment at Lewisham, a freight train on it’s side. My heart sank.

Victoria is chaos.

Plenty of staff at Charing Cross. None at Victoria. Eventually a man in a hut tells me to get on the train at platform five. There isn’t a train at platform five. I opt for the one on platform four as it’s sort-of going in the right direction. Orpington. I don’t even know where that is but I’m assured it’s in the right area. I arrange to be picked up there. We reach Bromley South and terminate unexpectedly. I have no idea where I am. Wish I had my Baker Atlas. It’s rare for me to have absolutely no idea what’s going on or where to go.I want to cry.

I hate trains.

Sympathy for the keyboard.

The 1030 from Temple Meads is generally a lovely train. Lightly loaded, I’m usually able to get my favourite disabled seat (A5 should you be wondering) and this morning I’m able to spread out across both seats, pull on my slippers and relax on my way to London. What’s more, it’s a little too late for breakfast, so no smelling of bacon for me yet too early for lunch and the scourge of the West Cornwall pasty.

But hark! Chippenham man has boarded! These are another sort, the sort that live in a nice semi on one of the many sprawling estates spawned by the devil-developers of Wiltshire. But then, if any county deserves this it’s Wiltshire with its flat tediousness and generally disappointing towns. Anyway, having parked the sensible people mover in the station car park, Chippenham man (a little too old and grey to be carrying off the hair gel, if i may be so blunt) produces his laptop. I’d imagine that Chippenham is the sort of place where everyone has a Dell, and lo behold, a Dell!

We all know what comes next. Oh yes. One finger keyboard destruction. Not just a gentle caress of the keyboard but a full-on anihilation of every key….thump, thump, thump..  the Quiet Coach is now positively reverberating to the sound of his thump-typing. He must get through a new machine every week. Bash! Bash! Bash! The space bar sounds like it’s on the verge of submission and gives a particularly weary click as it’s walloped again and again..

Time for some music….. we’ve reached Reading and someone with an inability to silence their mobile has boarded. And they still have that clicky sound on their phone as they type (Why??)

And the bloody WiFi doesn’t work, again.

Happy Monday all.

Whatever happened to self-awarenes?

As journeys go, the trip from Liverpool Street to Oxford Circus on the Central Line doesn’t rank that highly on anyone’s list of great rail journey of the world. I always enjoy it though, the cosy deep-tunnel tube trains, barely able to contain my athletic frame, throw humanity into a cosy embrace. Cosy enough to observe life at close quarters yet just far enough apart for Londoners (and guests) to do what we do best and, that is, to ignore everyone totally even if they are but inches away.

So no-one looks at you. Fertile ground for people watching.

This afternoon was typical and made me wonder about our self-awareness or lack of it. The train was fairly full and most seats were taken, so as everyone pretended that the strip advertising above our heads (hair removal, hair replacement, hair colouring, hair transplanting…. or a new job? Maybe a holiday?) I was able to discreetly observe who was around. Two respectable City-type ladies sat across from me caught my eye. Not in a Donald Trump kind of way as I am, most obviously a gentleman. The lady to the right was chewing gum. In fact she wasn’t just chewing gum, she must have been chewing a pack of gum. Her mouth was so wide open that any dentist in our carriage, or even one on the platform of a passing station, could have conducted a full inspection of her molars without having to move. I didn’t really want to watch as it was gruesome, but there’s that whole looking at car crash thing isn’t there?

So, I did look away. To the lady sat beside her. She was chewing her nails (beside my chewing gum pet hate, this really grates. It even grates my children) and I mean chewing all of her nails. I’m sure at one point both hands were in her mouth, almost to the point she was restricting her breath and turning blue: I’ve never seen anything like it. At least she didn’t spit the little bits of nail across the carriage and for these small mercies we should be grateful.

Sadly Oxford Circus arrived all too soon.

Ps there was a phone user on the 1930 from Paddington in the quiet coach this evening. We could all hear his wife describe the delicious quinoa waiting for him when he got home.

Obviously he got off at Bath…