Monday, August 28, 2006

Unspecified technical fault? Not likely!

It isn't always easy being a Happy Commuter, particularly when you leave work early just so you can get home in plenty of time to go to a Summer barbeque at your spouse's colleague's house, only to be delayed in the New Southgate area and end up getting home normal time anyway. One compensation, though, is that at least you know exactly what the problem is. Because if there's one thing you can say for the train drivers (or one more thing, bearing in mind my previous post) it's that they don't skimp on the detail when it comes to explaining the reasons for delays.

Just this week, I have been delayed on 3 seperate occasions (and by "delayed" I mean more then 10 minutes behind schedule - 5 minutes either way doesn't count) and on each occaion, the unhappy circumstances that have caused the problem have been explained in almost painstaking detail.

First of all, on Wednesday evening, coming home late after having a drink with my cousin, we progressed at a snail's pace from Finsbury Park to New Barnet, whereupon the driver informed us that an earlier train failure on the fast lines had caused all subsequent trains to be shunted on to the slow line whilst the authorities came and shifted the thing, and we would be picking up speed towards Stevenage as soon as we got through. Fine and dandy, I thought - I may be tired, hungry and a little bit drunk, but at least I'm not sat here in the dark, so to speak.

Next, on Thursday, came the incident to which I referred at the start of this post: the Summer barbeque at The Wife's colleague's place (for the record, we had a lovely time and they're very nice people, but it did get a little cold after the Sun went down, and the dastardly insects feasted upon us). Having left work an hour early, I got the five to six out of Kings Cross to get me home in plenty of time to straighten my tie, turn down my collar and generally smarten myself up from my usual state of scruffiness. We got past the Arsenal stadium okay, but then we slowed to a crawl after Finsbury Park. We all started getting twitchy, glancing around vaguely without meeting anyone else's eye, and then after a few minutes came the driver's announcement. The standard apology, of course, but then things got interesting: all services were delayed following "an incident at Oakleigh Park, involving the Metropolitan Police." Crikey. That beats "overhead line problems." All of a sudden, our grumbling ceased, as we all mentally pictured the scene: uniformed officers scampering around Oakleigh Park's platforms with a trenchcoat-clad, pipe-smoking dectective dictating notes to a frantically scribbling constable. Espionage, theft, fare-dodging: what could it be? It certainly took my mind off being late, and kept me entertained all the way home.

Friday morning, and having risen bright and early with only a slightly sore head and a few insect bites, I made my way to the station to catch my regular service. It trundled in ten minutes behind schedule, and only a minute before the next semi-fast service was due to arrive, Now in these situations I'm never quite sure what to do: get on the late one because after all it is supposed to be earliest, or wait for the next one on the assumption that if it's delayed already, it will be further held up to let other services past so that they don't get delayed in turn. I chose the former option, and of course it turned out to be the wrong one. Once again, though, we were at least treated to a detailed and apologetic explanation of the cause. In this instance, we were told that only one of the four turbo motors was working, and thus we couldn't accelerate properly, but would probably gather speed on the straight between Stevenage and London because there were no stops and we would "gain momentum". The idea of our train being subject to Newtonian laws of motion rather than moving, as it were, under its own steam, tickled us all greatly, and there was the rare sight of delayed commuters exchanging wry smiles and even making eye contact. Once again, we were all very forgiving and there was none of the grumbling you might expect in the circumstances. And all because the driver had taken the trouble to explain to us exactly what was going on, rather than trying to fob us off with the standard drivel about overhead line problems.

The moral of the story? Well, it's not really a moral, but it does go to show that even commuters love a bit of originality.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Driving me crazy

One of my talented and good-looking colleagues, SW, recently confided to me a tale of train delays, and dodgy mobile reception, on the train to Southampton over our morning coffee (or in her case, morning dodgy cup of wierd herbal stuff that smells like Pay-Doh - I mean, honestly, stinging nettles and hot water does not an appealling combination make). Par for the commuting course, you might think - any hardened commuter of more than a week's standing would be able to draw on deep seam of such stories - but what really tickled her was the demeanor of the driver. Not only was he sincerely apologetic and almost too talkative - providing updates on the sitation and ETA every 5 minutes - but he even offered to let passengers without mobile reception use his mobile phone! Even SW, a lady not noted for her patience, was mollified and eventually reached her destination feeling that at least the train company had done their best to get her there on time. A heartening tale of the power of good manners, to be sure, and it brings me to my topic this week: train drivers.

One thing that has struck me over the course of my years on the rails, has been the change in the approach of the drivers. Now without wanting to get all political, it seems to me that since privatisation, the drivers (and I'm not talking about the rest of the staff here) have got a bit, well, posh. Back when I was a mere slip of a lad commuting to school every day, you were lucky to get a grunt from the driver in the course of an entire journey - although it did really get up their noses if you interfered with the doors. These days, no sooner has bum touched seat than the driver introduces himself, reels off the list of upcoming stops, cordially reminds you of the safety notices on board and wishes you a very pleasant journey. On some of the intercity routes they even thank you for travelling with them! It really is gratifying to feel one is in the hands of such an obliging chap.

The phenomenon even appears to have spread to the London Underground. For me, the romance of the tube has been somewhat lessened since I was forced to accept that it is operated by actualy human beings. There was real excitement, when I was kid, in descending into the bowels of the city to get on one of these grey metal machines, moving soundlessly from place to place, grim and purposeful. Having to use the network in rush hour has also lessened its appeal: the crush of sweaty humanity locked in an endless, hopeless struggle for elbow room is hardly conducive to a sense of wonder. But again, the fact that the staff that strive daily to keep London's people moving, actually seem to want you to get to where you want to go when you want to get there, does genuinely make you feel better disposed towards them, even when nothing is moving and the clock is ticking.

As SW would surely agree, London's buses have not quite reached the same standards of politeness yet, but then again they do seem to run on time, so maybe they don't need to.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Commuting 'round the Med - Part 2

On to Portoferraio, a maiden call for the QE2 (which excited me less than it might have done) and my first experience of the tender. A tender is, as far as I could tell, a small boat with barely enough space for a family of four, on to which they cram 150 people, having dropped anchor a mile away from shore, and motor them across the choppiest bit of water they can find. If nothing else, it made us all appreciate the stablisers on the ship, a hitherto unheralded feature, and reminded us that the sea is, in fact, a pretty dangerous place for the uninitiated. Nobody was actually physically sick ,although The Wife did have to pass the guy next to us a bag just in case, but none of us were disappointed when the reached the shore and our feet touched dry land. The land in question was the island of Elba, once home to post-Waterloo Napolean, and the main attraction is a house where he dwelt for a few years before heading to Corsica for that fateful encounter with arsenic-laced wallpaper. I am ashamed to say that, even though as a successful shortarse he should be one of my idols, The Wife and I decided to forgo a tour of the house itself - there was a big queue and it was uncomfortably hot. We were knackerered after a long day in Rome, and settled for an espresso in the delightful town centre, before returning to the ship on a less crowded tender for lunch and, of course, an afternoon nap.

Next stop was "the Hollywood Boulevard of Europe", Cannes. We had missed the film festival and the advertising festival, and presumably lots of other fesitvals, but the place was still awash with beautiful people disporting in various states of undress , strategically placed to ensure that they would be seen by as many people as possible. Posing, in other words. It was another tender job, but this one was somehow gentler than the last one - poccibly because I knew what was coming. On reaching the shore, we made for the Musee De Quelquechose (I can't remember the exact name), resplendent in our poshest Summer get-up (because as The Wife put it, you never know who you might run into in Cannes). Now Cannes is not renowned for its museums, but on the basis of the one we looked round this may be unfair. It comprised a collection of ancient artefacts recovered from across the world by the eccentric chappy who founded it, from Egypt and Greece to Mesopotamia, Persia, and China, and on to South America. These pieces themselves included wedding charms, sarcophogi, paintings and musical instruments. It was fascinating. Emerging into the baking midmorning heat, we descended into the main shopping area, thankful (at least in my case) that it was Sunday and lots of the designer shops were shut. Then, unable to resist any longer, we made for the main promenade for a bit of posing, finding a cafe packed with Adonises and Venuses chomping on champagne and caviar, and enjoying an espresso while marvelling at some of the driving on display.

On the Monday morning we arrived in Barcelona, another of Europe's great cities and a veritable treasure trove of architectural wonder. Our goal, however, was not the cathedral (we weren't allowed in, as The Wife's shoulders were exposed), nor the Picasso Museum (it was shut), nor any of Gaudi's masterpieces. We were there to shop. For handbags. We got one, too, from a huge department store we discovered after a tip-off from a woman at the harbour. Then we rambled up the Rambla, and hadan espresso from a outdoor cafe next to a McDonald's. After that, we hopped back on the air-conditioned motorcoach and headed back to the boat for - you've no doubt guessed it - an afternoon nap.

As Tuesday dawned, the boat docked in disputed sort-of-colonial British territory, Gibraltar. Unimpressed with the queues at the bus stop, we walked, in sweltering heat, into the town centre, where we found a taxi to take us to the cable car station. The idea, you see, is to take the cable car up to the top of the Rock, and then wander down again. Our taxi driver did his very best to persuade us that in fact the cable car was in imminent danger of collapse and we were putting our lives on the line by getting on it. We would be far better, and safer, he said, to give him more money and let him take us up to the top in his cab, with the benefit of his expert local knowledge thrown in for free. Breezily, we declined, and joined the queue of excited tourists waiting in the baking Sun for the gates to the station to open and admit them. After a few minutes of stifling temperatures, however, we tired of this waiting, and requisitioned another taxi along with a family from Liverpool with whom we proceeded to exchange barely a word. The driver took us all around the major sites - the caves, the quarry thingy that the Brits used to fire cannons out of, until finally we met the famous monkeys. Kind of cute, but also kind of scary. Just like humans, really.

And that was that, as far a ports of call were concerned. Three more days at sea provided us with ample opportunity to stuff our faces, get sunburn and make fools out of ourselves at karaoke and dancing. On the Friday, at 7am, we arrived back in Southampton, indulging in one last full Enlgish breakfast before hauling our considerably expanded frames, and our luggage, off the boat and back to the normality of real commuting. I know which one I prefer.