Leaves on the whine

Our train tracks are not the first in history to suffer from fallen foliage.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics
  • Leaves on the whine

As sure as night follows day, the arrival of autumn heralds leaves on the line holding up our trains. With it too comes endless whining about this blasted foliage, the assumption being that there were never leaves on the line in the good old days, and this never happens in other countries. In other words, things were better under British Rail.

The problem with this assumption is that it is not really true. We don’t often hear about this problem occurring in other countries, but it does. Crushed, wet, oil-secreting leaves cause steel wheels to lose firm contact with steel rails in all countries, just as the same kind of squashed foliage will cause you to slip on the pavement. Leaves on the line have long been a problem in France, Holland and Sweden. The Munich Stadtbahn is practically brought to a standstill at this time of year, every year, and in November 2002 a set of new trains had to be taken off the German railways because they were unable to cope with the soggy leaves.

It is true that this didn’t happen as much in the past. This, however, had nothing to do with the fact that the railways were publicly owned. There were fewer leaves on the line because there were fewer trees hugging the railway tracks. When most trains were hauled by steam locomotives, growth on verges and embankments was cut much further back to prevent them being ignited by wayward embers or sparks. What is more, after myxomatosis decimated Britain’s rabbit population in the 1950s, seedlings that would otherwise have been eaten by the blighters have been allowed to grow into full trees.

Thus we had the emergence of this ‘new’ problem nearly a quarter of a century ago. Veteran journalist Alan Hamilton wrote in 1980 to complain after hearing the defence of leaves on the line from a British Rail public address system, and in 1983 one correspondent wrote to The Times (London) complaining about his ordeal getting to work: ‘Arrival at 9.15 gets two excuses, normally contradictory. “Leaves on the line” is common, but definitely seasonal, as are “snow-drifts” and “high winds”.’ They were not unknown even in the age of steam; a Times report from 1935 laments the nuisance that they were causing in the Brighton area.

It is true that the trains are less punctual and more expensive since privatisation, but this does not mean that all of our railway’s problems can be attributed to it.

  • Not a leg to stand on

An increasing number of young women are waking up after a heavy night’s drinking with no recollection of the evening before, according to a survey conducted by the magazine Company. It interviewed 1000 women aged between 18 and 28, from which 66 per cent admitted that they had gone on benders, the memories of which completely escaped them, a figure up from 42 per cent in 2001. On these occasions, 50 per cent say that they had no idea how they had got home, a figure up from 33 per cent two years ago.

Well, young people should be allowed to have the odd heavy session now and again. However, getting legless can present real dangers. Most of us have had situations or had friends in situations in which, in hindsight, you realise could have actually led to serious injury or worse. I knew an old man who died after falling down the stairs when drunk; I knew a young man who fatally impaled himself when in a similar state. Getting totally blotto can be a perilous business.

Drink does throw up different problems for the different sexes. Men are more likely to get into a fight: either attacked by drunks or attack others when drunk. And women are more vulnerable to being raped or having their drinks spiked in ‘date rape’ attacks. Yet the evidence for the increase in ‘date rape’ attacks, while taken as a given by sections of the media, is actually scant. There is a body of opinion that many women who claim to be date raped have merely got far too pissed, lost their memory, regretted it in the morning and concluded that they must have been drugged.

To articulate this argument in polite society is not easy. When I get into a conversation with female friends about this, they glare at me as if I’m almost condoning rape. One has to repeat the obvious matter that rape is of course a horrible crime, and that this is the whole point: those who make false allegations both do a terrible disservice to women who have actually been raped, and equally to the men they make false allegations against.

So, can someone tell me: is there a connection between the increase in allegations of date rape and the increase of young women getting drunk out of their minds?

  • For Christ’s sake

The two wings of the Anglican Church are hardly endearing themselves to the world with their current squabble over gay clergy. On one side we have the Evangelical wing’s anti-gay pedantry, and on the other, a ghastly coterie of care bores who seem less interested in adhering to Christian doctrine and more concerned in proving to the world how ‘relevant’ and ‘caring’ the Church should be.

One correspondent to The Times said this week over the imminent split: ‘Whatever is left of the Anglican Church can then devote itself to dealing in a practical and modern way with the inherently tolerant and compassionate teachings of its founder.’ It’s all very well alluding to all the cuddly things Jesus said, but it does rather overlook all the nasty bits in the Old Testament.

A plague on both their petty, sentimental houses, I say. Give me a heroic religion like Islam or Judaism any day.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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