It's not just Britain where trains get stuck in their tracks.
With all the headaches that go with air travel after 11 September (mandatory shoe-checking and all that) I thought it would be nice to catch up on some train travel while on my escapades, finishing a documentary in the USA, launching a restaurant in South Africa and filming in Europe. I was seized by the romantic notion of soothing, hassle-free travel at high speeds across beautiful landscapes.
I soon discovered, though, that a trip on the quintessential representative of industrialisation and progress had all of the anxiety and disillusionment of our modern times stamped all over it….
‘Please take extreme care when moving through the carriages, as the doors have been frozen’, an announcement informed us as we headed towards Washington, DC on Amtrak’s Excel. ‘There is ice everywhere. On the steps. On the platform. Please take extreme care when moving around….’ I was almost expecting the inspectors to pass around mandatory disclaimers to complement the luke-warm burn-free coffee, now that the fear of litigation and protecting against any accidents has hit an all-time high.
Earlier we had been told that we had to stop at a station to ‘check the back carriages’. Fortunately, though, we were allowed to continue our journey – unlike in England where a little ice seems to almost shut the country down.
A journey a few weeks ago in Italy was far more precarious than my slight delay on route to DC, though. I had to get from Pesaro to Bologna (we all love those cheap flights with Ryan Air and EasyJet). This should have been simple enough, with me only having to choose between the express and normal service. The problem was, the express train had been delayed. ‘We don’t know why. Or how long for. Or if it will happen again’, came the reassuring explanation from the impeccably dressed station master.
‘Mmm’, I grumbled, ‘I really do need to catch a plane. Should I try and get the normal service?’. ‘Big problem too. Could run on time – maybe not’, he replied. It felt as though I was catapulted back to my backpacking days travelling around India, where a supposedly reliable system was entirely haphazard. The group that I had been filming, meanwhile, ended up being delayed for three hours and nearly missed their concert.
I can’t help but wonder what happened to the bold vision of travel on trains, and the confidence that went alongside it. While in Cape Town in February I met an engineer who had just completed a new line from Simons Town to Cape Town. He told me how, when they ran the first train on the tracks, members of the public came along and clapped. This image, which seemed to be from a bygone era, had me chuckling a little cynically perhaps – but at the same time I was impressed by his passion for his work and implementing new infrastructure.
At a time when everyone seems to be overly concerned with safety and risk, what we really need is some confidence to expand a network and technology to higher levels. Rather than short-term charges we could do with some large-scale vision.
As I write this, I am about to leave Berlin and go via train to Hamburg (once again chasing those cheap flights home). I do hope that boring stereotype of brilliant engineers is reflected on my impending journey. Otherwise, I may have to go back to the skies, with all the baggage that entails.