LONG before he became an object of public opprobrium Jimmy Savile was hired by British Rail to front an advertising campaign.
Its slogan – "this is the age of the train" – was one to which everyone who travelled by rail was eager to subscribe. Reclining in a half-empty carriage while the train bulleted through bucolic countryside, the cigar-chomping, track-suited, Elvis-loving freak looked like he owned the whole network. Which, it seemed, was exactly what BR wanted its customers to feel.
And so, to a certain extent, we did. I used to travel frequently from Edinburgh to London, occasionally in first class, sometimes by sleeper.
By and large, it was a pleasurable, uneventful experience. The trains were as quiet as a chapel and chugged rather than hurtled. There was no real sense of urgency. We would arrive in the heart of the city more or less on time, having been well fed and watered. In a word, refreshed.
Often, one was reluctant to disembark. I would fantasise of longer journeys, crossing continents like Paul Theroux or Eric Newby, whose books – The Great Railway Bazaar and The Big Red Train Ride – I read as avidly as Michael Portillo does his Bradshaw guide. As anoraks were quick to attest, there was a romance to rail travel with which no other mode of transport could compete. You could hop aboard a train at your station in the boondocks and from there go virtually anywhere in the world.
Doubtless that is still the case. But in the past couple of decades trains have lost much of their allure. For this my fellow passengers must take much of the blame. Yesterday's report of a driver in England requesting a woman in a first-class carriage to stop talking so loudly into her mobile phone, which has been greeted with general rejoicing, is indicative of a problem which regular rail users have had to tolerate for too long. For far from being a relaxing experience, train travel has become something which is a test of our forbearance. In the 21st century the train does not so much take the strain as pile it on.
I have often wanted to tell someone to shut up on public transport but have summoned up the courage just once. This was on a Ryanair flight last year from Barcelona to Rome when I told two drunk Spanish girls in the seats behind me to haud their whisht, though I did not put it so civilly. Something must have got lost in translation because it had no effect whatsoever.
My son tells me he recently witnessed an interesting incident on a Lothian bus when a man instructed a group of young children to zip it.
Alas, this extra-parental guidance did not go down well with the children's father who threatened to thump the man if he persisted in interfering.
Therein lies the rub. At what point is it wise to speak up? For a while I used to take out a notebook whenever a person near me talked too loudly on his phone. As he havered, I wrote, sometimes transcribing what he actually said, which was usually to do with what he had for breakfast. I hope he found this disconcerting.
Occasionally I overheard a journalist from a rival newspaper talking to his editor about a hot story. Whereupon I would start talking on my phone and pretend to tell my editor about the same story. This did not result in cross-press harmony.
But what are you to do when your aural space is so brutally invaded?
You could, for instance, grab the phone out of the culprit's hand or tear the leaking plugs from his ears. And I would, if I were SAS trained.
A few years ago I was returning via ScotRail to Edinburgh from Glasgow with a pregnant friend when a young man sitting next to me and opposite her lit up. Politely, she asked him to desist. Wordlessly, he suggested she should save her breath. She asked again. He inhaled deeply. She fumed then plucked the cigarette from his mouth. Which is when he pulled back his fist. Trains and strains – tell me about it.
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