Hail Britannia!

Published in the travel section of the Helsinki daily Hufvudstadsbladet on March 16, 2003.
Travel and experience the delights of the United Kingdom. Avoid claustrophobic bus and car travel— the train is best after all.
    This was our starting point. On the Internet, everything seemed simple enough, a return trip from Oxford to Llandudno Junction in Wales. Seat reservations (handy if you’re journeying with kids), a family discount and only one train transfer. A simple credit card payment and the tickets drop into the letterbox a few days later.
    Everyone at Oxford railway station keeps their gaze on the departures board. For every minute that passes by, the calculated departure time is delayed by a further minute. The manipulation of minutes is interrupted after half an hour when a refined voice on the PA system announces that the train is standing and will probably never reach Oxford. The voice then proceeds to recommend in a friendly although routine manner that the passengers move on to an awaiting bus.     
    Those who have been in the trenches before run for their lives, as they know that the bus will fill up in a matter of seconds. The amateurs such as the young Finnish family of four with far too much luggage in tow shamble onwards and are punished immediately and left with two scattered seats. No one gives the slightest indication that they are willing to offer or change seats. The system has turned genteel Britons into predators.   
    This initial leg usually takes an hour by train. The oxygen deprived bus crawls forward on the congested motorways for a total of three hours. The elder son, who is five, is starting to look green. His younger brother is only a few months old and turning scarlet.    
    Why didn’t the train arrive then?
    It was too packed, so the train conductor decided to stop the train in protest. By all accounts, there is nothing particularly unusual about this.
    Since I am a tourist and unencumbered with a working knowledge of the British railway system, I pound my fist on the counter at the complaints department at Birmingham railway station and receive a café coupon for £ 3 and a dry reply about a connecting train that is departing from platform 27A in three minutes due to, naturally enough, a delay. On platform 27A we find a sizeable throng of people, but alas no train. This is because the train is departing from another platform, this one and only time.     
    We find the train, however, and well ensconced in the compartment saunter over to our seats. After an hour, the still completely green five-year-old starts to loudly complain that “his conker aches”. As the train glides toward the station the only logical thing happens; a discrete stream of vomit sails through the air and lands on to the wall-to-wall carpeting of the Virgin Trains compartment.
    I pat the surprised five-year-old on the head. “Well done,” I say, they had it coming.
    Time to change train operators. A small company handles a route to northern Wales, but rumour has it that the company’s engine drivers are on strike — on a Saturday (which is today, of course) and Sunday. According to another rumour, the strike is over. However, no one knows for sure. Therefore, we drag our feet to the supposed point of departure and actually find a train awaiting. Our compartment is, of course, covered in popcorn.
    A week later and our return trip begins. I call the national service number and make enquiries.
    Is there any risk for further delays or cancelled routes?
    No sir, we have great hopes for today.
    The train from Wales actually runs without a hitch. On the other side of the border at the railway nexus that is Crewe, a spry nineteen-year-old in a blue suit greets us, however. He says that our train is cancelled.
    But why?
    “There was no available train in Manchester this morning” is the natural reply I receive.
    Instead, we should, niftily enough, wait a further 45 minutes and jump on to a local train and get off in Stafford and wait there for an hour for a Birmingham bound train, which will perhaps even take us to Oxford. “Beat the system!” he says enthusiastically.  
     
We actually arrive in Stafford and turn toward a turban-clad stationmaster who is sauntering back and forth on the platform. He says that our re-scheduled train to Birmingham is cancelled. He adds that this is usually the case and a matter of routine. An extra hour of waiting time is the only thing he can offer us. Don’t get all worked up yet, however, he warns us, as we don’t know if the train from Manchester is going to depart or not. For you can never be sure, he adds. After a while he comes running and is excited and almost overwhelmed. He says that the train is on its way and adds that we’re probably travelling under a favourable star given that everything is going so amazingly well.   
    Onboard this blessed train a life and death struggle for seats is underway. A teenager of Indian origin rushes forward to a red-faced Englishman who is sitting in his seat. The boy displays his seat reservations and asks the man to rise from his seat. Instead, the man angrily shoos him away. We are all on our own here, he yells after the boy. 
    In love and war as well as on Britain’s railways, everything is permitted.
    In Birmingham, we’re packed like sardines in a tin. This is the train serving passengers from three or four cancelled routes. Oh dear, now this train also comes to a halt. It is immobile… and the air is becoming stale. The train is at rest until a sudden announcement from the speakers booms forth and shakes us awake: “The train has stopped due to a technical problem. “ The voice continues to explain that a southbound substitute train, which happens to be delayed and therefore only arrived now is departing from…    
    The youngest toddler barely has time to utter a syllable before the entire compartment is empty.  I ask a railway employee on the platform if we’re actually expected to drag our eight pieces of luggage and two increasingly sceptical children to another even more packed train.
    ”No, no, why would you do that? Board the train again. You never know what could happen. “ he says. Forty-five seconds later, our nearly half-empty train starts rolling forward. This is reminiscent of the legendary Russian capriciousness, which nearly every eastern bound traveller encounters. This amuses us no end as this implies that the British railway system is in the same league. There is of course an important distinction, as the far more complex and unwieldy Russian railway system actually works. 
    When our train finally rolls on, I see through the window a hysterical horde of people — wrestling and trying to cram themselves into an already overcrowded train. We, on the other hand, get to spread ourselves out over the four seats we’ve paid for and even experience the luxury of reaching our destination. 
    The stretch between Wales and Oxford that seemed so simple on paper and according to the Internet was a three-hour trip involving a single transfer turned into eight gruelling hours of travel and three transfers in practice. However, we are the only ones who are in the least bit surprised. For the average Briton, this is a given.
    What is the moral of this story then?
    Well, that the era of England as a great power is well and truly over.
    Moreover, that railway services should never ever be privatised.
   
Copyright:  Magnus Londen
Translated by: Jason O´Neill