One Saturday afternoon last winter, when it was pissing with rain outside, the sun never rose, the kids were under blankets on the sofas watching telly, Palace were playing away and there was literally nothing else to do, I decided to trace my ancestors. I used one of the web based facilities (www.ancestorsRus.com or something similar) and after a couple of hours of discovering that – as suspected – I was 5th generation Welsh on one side and (perhaps more worrying) 3rd generation Norfolk on the other I decided to call it a day. Not for me a hitherto hidden letter that confirmed that – after all – I was the last known blood relative of the last emperor of such and such a place, or the descendant of the undiscovered bastard love child of the king of somewhere exotic. No – my great, great paternal grandfather came from Cardiganshire and my maternal great grandfather (and indeed grandmother) both came from Shelfanger in Norfolk (and yes, before you ask, I have only ten digits and ten toes and I feel nothing when I see a tethered sheep – even if it is wearing naughty lingerie). My episode of Who Do You Think You Are would be over before it began.
But actually, the most interesting and influential part of my heritage is only two generations back. My paternal grandfather, George Thomas, died when I was very young and though I vaguely remember him I never really knew him. The interesting connection between him and me is that he worked and I now work very close to each other on the south bank of the Thames near Tower Bridge. He was manager of a wharf in Bermondsey. I am a lawyer working in an office on the site of a former wharf sandwiched between another law firm and two of the world's largest accountancy firms (and Boris' office). Two generations and a world apart. He would have looked out of his office, like I do, at Old Father Thames, the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, but not the Gherkin, the Shard of Glass, Tower 42 and the Heron Tower. But it's a nice connection and one which gives me a strange but tangible sense of pride and belonging. He lived in Catford and during the war my Dad and his siblings were evacuated to Hildenborough, not far from where I now live. I and several of my cousins have gravitated to the area over the years. It is a lovely part of the world. Unless you happen to be a commuter....
My maternal Grandfather, Harry Rout, was a railwayman. He worked on the London and North Eastern Railway in the latter years of the steam era. He lived in Bishop Auckland, near the birthplace of the steam railway (Locomotion, the first passenger train, was made in Shildon and the Stockton to Darlington railway was the first commercial passenger steam service in the world). He was an inspector on the Flying Scotsman on its last commercial passenger journey (according to my Mum, and who am I to doubt her) and his old house was crammed full of railway memorabilia – he even kept chickens in an old station waiting room and rabbits next door in a hutch made of sleepers. His journey to work in the morning was to open the garden gate, walk down the embankment and walk along the tracks to Bishop Auckland marshalling yards. After Dr Beeching wielded his axe in the 1960s the line that ran past the house closed (in 1968) and fell into disuse and he use to take me (and my sister and cousin) for walks along the old tracks and through the Old Town Head tunnel up to the Newton Cap viaduct – both remarkable works of civil engineering rendered redundant by the savage cuts inflicted by the good doctor.
The line has long since gone and the tunnel has been filled in but the memories still remain. The smell of steam, the sweat on the coal smudged face of the train crew, Jenny Agutter waving her red petticoat to warn the approaching express train of a landslide? Isn't it? Hmm?
Britain's railways are therefore in my DNA which goes some way to explain, perhaps, the strength of feeling that I have about the parlous state of our railway system today.
Regular readers of my frequent Facebook rants on this subject will be all too familiar with the emotion that this subject evokes in me, partly out of sorrow for the loss of an intrinsic part of this once great nation's heritage, but partly because I have the misfortune to live on one of the crappiest rail routes in the whole of England – the London to Hastings line, operated by Southeastern Trains (the Dick Turpin of Britain's transport network).
Everything about my daily commute has the potential to make my blood boil. Here are a few examples:-
1. The station car park. In keeping with everything to do with purchasing tickets to use Britain's railways (see below) Tunbridge Wells has the most arcane car parking arrangements imaginable, seemingly designed to catch out the unwary user. Car Parking arrangements on Southeastern Trains are outsourced to Meteor Parking who, as far as I can make out are a bunch of licensed cowboys whose sole raison d'etre is to slap £40 fines on cars which are parked in the wrong place or in the right place but at the wrong time, but who are very slow to clear snow from their car parks, mend ticket machines or come up with a system which is both comprehensible and workable. I just don't have the mental strength right now to explain how crap their system is, though they have of course received a long letter/diatribe/spewing rant full of invective from me pointing this out and suggesting ways in which they could improve their arrangements. I have not had a response as yet, nor even an acknowledgement of receipt. I wrote the letter last September.
2. A couple of years ago, in a crack down on fare dodgers, Southeastern (or Network Rail – don't know which, but it really isn't relevant) decided to install automatic ticket barriers at Tunbridge Wells station. This entailed a huge amount of work and disruption, the erection of a steel fence around the base of the footbridge which linked the two sides of the station to stop people escaping and the funnelling of embarking passengers through a tiny ticket hall and two single width doorways through two ticket barriers as disembarking passengers battled against the tide in the other direction. Whoever came up with this idea should be publicly flogged. Notably, the expensively installed barriers have been left open now for about the last six months, presumably as a result of concerns over potential crushings or public order offences. Why not rip them out altogether on that basis and restore the station to its former Victorian glory, bringing back the frisson of excitement and anticipation of seeing the hit squads of Southeastern revenue protection officers awaiting the arrival of the next consignment of fare evaders and imagining yourself as Gordon Jackson in the Great Escape......
3. Ticket pricing. Go onto the National Rail website and try to work out how much a f*cking ticket to anywhere costs. Ridiculous.
4. Punctuality targets. Southeastern Trains seem to view timetables as something with which to decorate their station walls. And to view their obligation to provide a reliable transport service as entirely optional, particularly if it is snowing. Southeastern Trains have an obligation to refund 5% of the price of a season ticket if they fail to meet their punctuality targets. That punctuality target was set (for 2010) at 82%. Despite not running a single train on time for virtually the whole of January or December on our line, which was the icing on a great big juicy cake made up of signal failures, points failures, train failures, staff sickness, cows on the line, track adhesion issues (leaves on the line to you), parking over the magnet (what?!), failed rebooting of the traction unit (cover your ears, Grandad) and just about every other excuse you could think of (and some you couldn't) Southeastern smashed its punctuality target by 0.04% thus not only enabling it to avoid paying refunds but also to hike fares up by 13% for this year. You couldn't make it up.
5. There has been a campaign running this week in the Daily Telegraph to eradicate muzak from restaurants, with the Master of the Queen's Music reportedly flouncing out of his local Italian in protest at the canned opera muzak (I love that word) that was offending his sensibilities. I am going to start a similar campaign to eradicate pointless and useless announcements on trains and stations. While waiting for the train the other day i was told in the space of less than three minutes that the station is patrolled 24 hours a day by the security services for the purposes of security and safety management, that due to today's wet weather I should take special care on the station platform as surfaces might be slippery (it wasn't raining, by the way), that smoking is prohibited on all parts of the station (usefully adding that this includes the station concourse - I don't smoke, but it is nice to be told what the station comprises) and that I should keep my baggage and personal possessions with me at all times (and that anything left unattended would be removed and could be destroyed by the security services).
What they failed to tell me was that the train that I was waiting for on platform 6 had just left from platform 5.... They were probably too busy blowing up briefcases left behind by people who had snuck outside for a crafty tab.
When announcements are made they are invariably wrong, comprised of tortuous grammatically incorrect gibberish, made at minimum volume, often in a thick foreign accent, crammed full of excuses and completely uninformative. And then repeated, just to rub salt into the wound.
6. Fellow passengers and their eating, drinking, nose picking, ipod listening, laptop using habits. Another blog all on its own. Watch this space.
But what is the alternative? The short answer is that there isn't one. And Southeastern know it. Complaints fall on deaf ears and are never dealt with - I am still awaiting my refund for the first week of snow last November. Passengers (we were called "customers" for a while, but that would mean that we are always right, so we are now called "passengers" again) will be treated with contempt and disdain until there is an effective and independently verifiable way of penalising the rail companies for under-performance. And until that time we will, like so many sheep, continue to squeeze past the obstacles, physical and metaphorical, that are placed in our way every morning and evening just so that we – unlike our uniformed tormentors – can get on with an honest day's work.
Oh! Dr. Beeching, what have you done?
There once were lots of trains to catch, but soon there will be none!
I'll have to buy a bike, 'cause I can't afford a car.
Oh! Dr. Beeching! What a naughty man you are!"
Bring back Bernard Cribbins with his pocketwatch and cheery wave.....