Tuesday 26 January 2010

No barrier to a hopeless drunk

15st 8lb, 7.8 units. I drove Mrs H and The Baby to Newcastle Central Station so that they might catch a train back to Chester. An admittedly first class single (for the section of the journey where first class is actually available) cost something north of £80, which is less than I am accustomed to paying for a first class return to London. But then the journey was scheduled to take around four and a half hours, so maybe nowadays they use a formula that calculates rail fares on a per minute rather than a per mile basis.

Another quirk is that there is a direct train from Newcastle to Manchester every hour, but the national rail information websites seem to make every effort to conceal this fact from the travelling public. Certainly every search we undertook for travel between the North East and Chester specified a minimum of two changes, at York and Manchester. Some managed to find scope for three. One particularly mad option, when Mrs H planned to take a train up here, was to reach Alnmouth by changing at Preston and Edinburgh (though there was a footnote warning that this might involve paying “more than one fare”). But nowhere is there a “baby in buggy: minimize changes” button to press, which would lead you to the humorously named Transpennine Express direct from Newcastle to Manchester Airport.

I guess it must have something to do with the revenue sharing arrangements between the various train operating companies, which somehow make it desirable for as many passengers as possible to be funnelled onto East Coast (or whatever it is called this week) if they are using the line between Newcastle and York. They used to carry this to the absurd length, on the departure boards at York, of showing the ultimate destination of northbound Transpennine Express trains as Chester-le-Street, so that people waiting for a train to Newcastle would not have the temerity to board one.

Given the combination of absurdly high fares, slow trains and inconvenient connections, it is scarcely surprising that relatively few people in Britain travel cross-country by rail. And another barrier has been erected, quite literally, since I last visited Newcastle Central: metal and glass gates which mean that you cannot get onto the platforms without a ticket.

Now, to be fair, these are a lot less visually intrusive than the old, high metal railings and gates that used to stand at the entrances to the platforms. I read reports about the new barriers in The Journal which said that “it is believed that there were formerly gates in place at the station”, as though they were some ancient piece of history, well beyond living memory. But I remember them well from my university days. Great, tall, heavy, cast iron things they were, with the gates invariably manned by disobliging jobsworths who would always reply to the hurrying passenger’s “Which platform for London?” with “Why didn’t you look it up on the departures board?” The c**ts.

On the other hand, in those days you could always get past the jobsworths by investing 2d in the machine that issued pasteboard platform tickets. A tradition that must have disappeared at around the same time that they stopped asking “Would you like insurance?” at the ticket office every time they sold a rail ticket, or at any rate a long distance one (I am not sure they can have bothered on the issue of every second class single from Manors to West Jesmond). I did not start travelling around the country by train until the 1970s, but I can well recall being invited to pay an extra shilling (or 5p) for a postcard which you could send to your loved ones, specifying in horrific detail the payout they could look forward to receiving if your train journey ended in the loss of a limb, faculty or life.

Mrs H asked for a platform ticket for me at the “travel centre”, but they said I could not have one: they did not issue them any more. So how, she asked politely, is my husband going to help me onto the train with my buggy and luggage? “He’ll just have to ask the member of staff on the gates.” Fortunately, said member of staff was a soft touch. So much so that, about half an hour or so after departure, I had an e-mail from Mrs H reporting that “It’s all very Coronation Street on here”. Just as her train was about to depart, a clearly hopeless drunk had staggered up to the doors and they had not only opened them for him, but kept them open as he had attempted to strike up a conversation with the guard despite the handicap of suffering a clearly drink-related loss of the power of speech. Once under way, they had provoked him by declining to sell him more booze from the refreshment trolley, and he was making his discontent loudly known to all the other passengers. Plans were being made to have him removed by the railway police at York. Still, it’s handy they installed those expensive new gates at Newcastle to control access to the platforms and stop this sort of unfortunate incident happening in the first place.

1 comment:

Ian said...

Another amusing Label - Drunk (Hopeless) - will we see it again? I see that 'Scratters' is far and away in the lead, while the equal runners-up, 'Northumberland', 'Obesity' & 'Beer' tell the story so far.