Train of thought – in which our correspondent tries life on the railways, and finds it makes a refreshing change from airport queues and premium lounges…

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  • Anonymous


    Bit of a change for me last week. Instead of schlepping to and fro from airport to airport going international, I had a US colleague over for several UK-based client meetings and decided to use British Rail – or whatever its successor is called…

    Considered before the fact, I found the idea of a first-class train journey to North Yorkshire quite appealing. No airport, no passport, and no airplane; instead I’d have a nice big comfy seat, a table to spread out my papers and get some work done, and plugs for computers and to charge up mobiles. Someone in the office even mentioned a pretty capable wifi set-up.

    I’m sure many who use this service would agree with all this. There are probably others who don’t, and who are waiting to hear just how wrong I was. Here’s what happened.

    Firstly, Kings Cross. It isn’t Heathrow, I’ll give you that (nothing is that bad), but it’s still a bit of a mess, with hundreds of people sitting on backpacks while the old and infirm huddle around the edges of the great mass of people, trying to find a wall to lean on which isn’t selling fast food of some sort.

    Credit where it’s due: getting to Kings Cross by tube is easy enough, and the station itself and surrounding area have improved enormously from what I remember, but it is still a zoo. I reassured my colleague this was better than it used to be and we agreed it was reminiscent of Penn Station in NY.

    The GNER service may conjure images of open countryside, but it is also extremely busy because of passing through so many stations on the way up there. The Aberdeen service I was booked on runs all the way up the east coast of the UK, stopping at York and Edinburgh en route. So when the platform is announced on the fancy digital monitors at Kings Cross, there isn’t anything relaxed about it, as a stampede of wool/polyester blend suits race to the train. Of course, with my first class ticket and bespoke number, I was wholly superior. I knew I could progress at a more relaxed pace, being assured of a spacious, privileged seat somewhere.

    What a fool. I did have a reserved seat, but the carriage was mobbed to bursting by the regular users, all of them taking up two seats and trying to keep anyone from sitting next to them. At the same time they all were talking loudly on their company mobiles confirming orders and paper work with Stacey back in “t’office”, and making doubly sure that you wouldn’t want to sit next to them anyway.

    I shoehorned my way into my seat and decided it would take a fight to get my laptop out on the table and displace Mr Sidebottom’s Valve User Weekly mags, so settled into reading the newspapers. Thankfully, the East Coast line is very efficient and so I arrived several hundred miles north in less than two hours in plenty of time for our meeting.

    The return was equally interesting, as we sat beside two delightful Yorkshire ladies in the first class dining car heading down t’London shopping. The menu was simple enough and the waiter pleasantly served cold foreign fighting lager and quarter bottles of pinot for the two-hour return.

    By now, with one successful return trip under my belt, I was emboldened, and fancied myself both an expert of the UK rail network and an amateur social scientist, able to enjoy contact with whole new sub-species of business travellers I had never encountered before. Here was where real life was, I told myself, not in the aetiolated business class lounges of the world. So this time, for a trip from Waterloo down to the South Coast, I was almost looking forward to it. Waterloo is an Innocent Smoothie compared to Kings Cross’s Sunny Delight. I know the station from commuting a few years ago, and catching a train to the coast was a new experience only in terms of destination. It was late, as always, because of works restricting platform access, and we were 30 minutes late.

    I suppose for business travellers who use low-cost airlines frequently, the worst-case scenario for travelling companions is to find oneself on a plane full of stag weekenders. For a similar experience, simply catch a late train back into London on a Friday night. We snaked our way back through Winchester and Basingstoke to Waterloo with several stops, and at each halt more people got on, almost all of them with a bottle of alcohol in hand, and a bag of more alcohol in the other. Luckily I seamlessly blended into the background with my City suit camouflage, and while the train itself was held outside Waterloo for 15 minutes because of the works I had enough time to finish my call notes on my laptop (dedicated power supply really is a thoughtful touch) and to prepare myself for the weekend. Conclusion: the trouble with flying is the airports, security, jet lag and time away from home. The trouble with trains is, well, other people. And even that’s not so bad. In fact, I think I preferred the young drunks to the other business travellers. The journeys were efficient, clean and without the security headaches and queues of the airport. The trains were busy, admittedly, and not especially cheap, but even at £200 return, first class would beat out a scheduled economy plane ticket, and I could get up and stretch, have a drink and even a three-course meal with wine; all very civilised. Shame I’m back at Heathrow Sunday afternoon.

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