Broke down engine blues

May 27, 2017 0 Comments

The story that follows isn’t unusual, or dramatic, or life-changing.  But it says something about the country we now live in, and what an historically abnormal attitude we have towards it.

I needed to go to London for the day for a meeting.  The train left Swansea on time at 8:29am, and most of the journey went without incident.  As homework for a talk I’m giving, I read Simon Armitage’s self-mocking account of coastwalking, Walking away (shouldn’t he have called it Going west?).   It made me smile, for the last time that day.  At Maidenhead the train stopped.  After a while we were told that points had failed.  On no account were we to try to get out on to the station platform.  Time passed.  Another announcement.  Engineers were still awaited to fix the points.  But the train manager would open the doors, in those carriages stopped at the platform, and we could catch another train waiting at Platform 4, which would take us, more slowly, to Paddington.  Just as we were aiming for this train it began to pull out of the station towards London, like a ship turning its back on refugees in a leaking boat.  The next slow train to Paddington was late, and stopped at intermediate stations.  I was an hour and a half late for the meeting.

The train back left London, full but on time, at 6:45pm.  Short of Reading a few ominous sounds were coming from the engine, and sure enough when we reached the station we were told that a ‘technical failure’ meant that the train could go no further, and we would all have to get out and wait for announcements.  After a while a train for Cheltenham arrived and we were advised to board.  Since it was already full, we refugees had to stand in the corridors till the train reached Swindon.  Here there was another announcement.  The refugees, it turned out, had supplanted the rescuers.  Passengers intending to travel to Cheltenham and other stations on the line were asked to leave ‘their’ train, which was now designated as ‘our’ train, redirected to Swansea.  So these new migrants rose miserably from their seats, while we collapsed thankfully into them.  Having left the train they were herded on to another, much smaller DMU labelled ‘Cheltenham’.  It didn’t move, and later we saw them all leave that train and move down the platform to what might have been a bigger or at least a functioning train.

‘Our’ train didn’t move either. It wasn’t allowed to, because for some reason it no longer had a train manager.  Another long wait.  Finally we were under way.  Hundreds of phone and text messages were sent to loved ones, telling them of the train’s new arrival time.  All in vain.  At Cardiff came the announcement, ‘I’m sorry to say there’s more bad news’.  A freight train had broken down between Cardiff and Bridgend, and we were being diverted along the Vale of Glamorgan line, adding another 25 minutes to the time of the journey.  The Vale of Glamorgan line is picturesque enough, but not in complete blackness and when morale is low.  Having rejoined the main line we were becalmed again at a signal to let other traffic past.  Finally we crept into Swansea station well after 11:00pm.

Now it’s true that not all rail journeys to London are as bad as this, and the combination of failures was unusual.  But the individual failures are common enough, and the reasons not hard to pin down.  Private rail companies don’t exist primarily to serve the public.  Their aim is to make money for their shareholders and directors.  To do this they charge passengers as much as they can, squeeze their ageing assets for all they’re worth, and avoid any serious investment.  The fares system is still labyrinthine and chaotic. There’s been no new rolling stock on the London-Swansea route since the 1970s.  Electrification is coming, slowly and expensively – no thanks to the train companies – but with no prospect of getting any further than Cardiff.  The overall result is a system – if it can be called a system – that’s ancient, expensive, inefficient and failing.

The answer to these problems is obvious, except to the government, and opinion surveys consistently show strong support for renationalisation of the railways.  The Labour Party manifesto for the general election  is also clear on the issue.  But somehow people don’t seem to feel that any change is possible.  Nationalised railways in other European countries can own and manage parts of our system, as Arriva Trains Wales is run by Deutsche Bahn, but the idea that we might operate our railway appears to most people to be as outlandish as us running our own postal or telkecoms system.

When we’d finished our ‘standing sentence’ and had slumped into our seats at Swindon, I fell into conversation with a pleasant woman going to Bristol.  I said, light-heartedly enough, that what we’d experienced so far was enough to convert hundreds of new people to the cause of Jeremy Corbyn, who advocated ridding our railway system of corporate interests.  She looked at me as if I was more than a little crazed, and was eager to change the topic.  I felt a fool at the time, but later on I wondered if the exchange didn’t reflect a lack of imagination on her part – an inability to see that things might be different, that we didn’t have to accept a system that obviously benefitted large corporate interests and their parliamentary agents but worked against the interests of almost everyone else.  I could imagine her getting home, logging on to the GWR website to beg for her meagre financial compensation, and shrugging her shoulders (‘these things do happen’).

It all makes you feel a bit lonesome.  Like Blind Willie McTell sang,

Feel like a broke down engine, ain’t got no whistle or bell
Feel like a broke down engine, ain’t got no whistle or bell
If you’s a real hot mama, drive away daddy’s weeping spell
(I won’t be back no more, baby).

(‘Broke down engine blues’, 1933)

Leave a Reply