So. Taxes on more or less everything are going up, and subsidies are going down. We have Cameron, not Mussolini (which is largely a good thing), so our trains are constantly late, and privatisation has mainly achieved just making the whole getting-around thing shinier, more expensive, and an awful lot more confusing.
Which is why I present to you, as a veteran of the British long-distance public-transport system, my guide to getting around in the UK. Mainly this is a rant about trains. In fact that’s entirely what it is. It’s bad enough already – or rather, we’re overcharged, and underserved. Privatisation simply means that the upholstery is prettier, as far as I can see, and the doors are electronic, and the train toilet cubicles are futuristically circular. The reason why (as I can understand it) it’s so expensive to get about by train in the UK is simply because different companies each own the tracks, the rolling stock (the carriages), and actually organise the running of the trains. Several different companies own bits of each of these ideas, and so obviously you’ve got a whole chain of people charging for services and making a profit each time and all of this gets passed onto the consumer. I don’t know what trains used to be like before privatisation, but I really can’t see why this is the ‘best’ way of doing it. So, yes. Despite all this, it’s still possible to make your journey not entirely unpleasant if you follow the advice I set out here.
Firstly, your ticket. It will almost invariably be invalid for at least one leg of the journey, partly because the regulations change completely arbitrarily depending on (as far as I can make out) how much the CEO at Megabus needs a cigarette. So carry enough cash not to end up stranded in Slough or somewhere. If you’re crossing London (and you don’t live there), you will need at least as many bits of paper and cardboard as you have bags with you. Furthermore, the more cases you’re carrying, the more lines in Central London will be closed that day.
Secondly, seats are probably the most vital thing about your entire journey. If you’re lucky enough to get on near the start of a route, be that on a coach or on a train, find your ideal seat, and sit in it. Put your bags next to you. Not in a way that implies you’re actually taking up residence, that’s just rude, everyone hates a seat hogger, but not in a way that moving them isn’t going to be at least a bit annoying for you. When the train stops to take on more passengers – now, listen carefully, because this bit is crucial if you wish to maintain your sanity for the next five hours – stare out of the window. Do not look at anyone. Under no circumstances should you make eye contact. Cultivate an expression of distant hauteur. Hopefully this will be enough – the bag, that awkward moment where they have to get your attention in order to beg you for that seat beside you, the even more awkward bit where they have to watch you sigh and pack up your belongings underneath your feet – that they won’t even chance it. However whilst looking haughtily and threateningly at the charming vista that is industrial Basingstoke, you must keep an eye on the numbers. If it looks like you’re going to have to share your seat, try and look less threatening when being approached by thin, small, shy people. People who don’t take up much space and are not likely to attempt to strike up conversation with you. If you’re very lucky, the effort of constantly changing your expression to convey different levels of threat will be enough to make you look completely insane, and then everyone will choose to avoid sitting next to you. Problem solved. This advice applies equally well on coaches, with the added extra worry that the sorts of people who travel by megabus have to be strange enough or poor enough that the idea of spending six hours on a motorway in the small hours with your knees around you ears doesn’t immediately send you to the brink of madness. And they never turn the air conditioning off, and simply turning off your personal vent makes about as much difference to the ambient temperature as turning on all the bunsen burners and huddling around them used to make to our school science labs.
However, let’s be honest, you probably won’t get a seat. And if you do, someone older or more frail than you is almost bound to turn up and look sweetly and expectantly at you until you stand up and give your seat to them – as, of course, you should. So let’s assume the worst. For some reason it seems to me that it’s more likely to happen on a Friday than on any other day that train companies will, for no reason whatsoever, decide to halve the number of carriages they’re going to allocate to your train. This will also automatically invalidate your seat reservation unless you’re wearing a suit and called Brian which somehow gives you a special licence to bully random passengers until they let you sit in ‘your’ seat. This special licence applies whether or not you have in fact made a seat reservation.
Someone will probably start something with the guard of the train at this point as he tries to get through to check your tickets, and some idiot tries to blame the frankly irresponsible lack of carriages on your guard, who probably actually finds it more annoying than you do, because not only does he now have to spend the entire journey climbing over suitcases, bikes and buggies and jostling irate passengers, but everything he has to do between here and Newport is going to take three times as long and he definitely won’t get to sit down. And everyone’s mad at him.
And then your train will be delayed. It’s just how it goes. It’s most likely to happen when you really do have to make a connection, or your ticket was super cheap but is only valid on this one specific train; when it’s late at night, and raining, and really bloody cold, and everyone else is already at the pub. This bit I can’t really tell you how to survive. Take a book. Buy a paper. I always find myself listening to music and then suddenly realise I’m actually dancing or singing along or, worse, conducting. And then you realise you’ve got to stand on a platform with all of these people for at least forty minutes because there aren’t any trains before yours, and they all think you’re mad.
Still, it might help you get a seat.