Last Saturday, I was travelling to the north-west on one of Richard Branson's new Pendolino trains. These always bring out the snob in me, with all that aspirational streamlining; the show-off, aeroplane-style seats designed to remind you of Branson's other, more glamorous line of business; the spivvy little notes under the art in the lavatories stating that copies of the print can be purchased on the Virgin Trains website; and the relentless high tech. Brashness is the keynote: the train doors beep piercingly as they close; staff announcements are heralded by an electronic clanging that instantly wakes anyone who has been lucky enough to fall asleep in the uncomfortable chairs; and the alarms in the toilets are activated regularly because people mistake them for the flush button, which is cleverly obscured whenever the toilet seat is raised.
The only good thing about my journey was the discovery that the kiosk sold painkillers. With these, I could mitigate the effect of the seats on my chronic lower back pain. The return journey on the Sunday was worse, an ordeal relieved only by the playing out of an interesting class vignette . . .
The Pendolino came in to Preston at 12.50pm or so. It was already crowded, and by the time the Preston lot had boarded, it was like a refugee train. The overcrowding, we were repeatedly told, was due to "overloading". In other words, the train was crowded because it was crowded. It was also, as the train staff admitted, overheating badly, and of course on Pendolinos there are no windows that you can open. They're executive trains, and executives don't open windows. They travel in air-conditioned comfort. Well, that's the persistent fantasy of 21st-century travel.
As we pulled away from Preston, word spread that first class had been declassified - the seats in there were up for grabs to all. So I fought my way along to first where there was one spare place, which put me within earshot of a well-spoken American wearing patrician, crumpled cords. He was remonstrating with one of the train staff and, in the American way, not only had he read her name as it appeared on her name badge (let's pretend she was called Stephanie), he was even using it.
"Stephanie," he was saying, "I have paid the £15 supplement four times for my family to upgrade to first, and all these people [he gestured around the packed carriage] have first-class seats for nothing." We interlopers sat there reading our Sunday supplements, trying to look as though we weren't listening, and feeling terrible.
Stephanie politely explained that, as one of the few holders of a first-class ticket in the first-class carriage, he would be entitled to free food and beverages (except that the hot water wasn't working) from the first-class kiosk at the fore end of the train, while everyone else would have to go to the shop at the rear end and pay. The American shook his head. "I don't buy that argument, Stephanie," he said equably. "Does the free food I'd
be entitled to amount to £60 worth?" "No," admitted Stephanie.
The American wanted a refund. "Who's in charge of this train?" he asked. "What do you mean?" asked Stephanie, genuinely curious. She then told the American that if he wanted a refund he would have to go to the ticket office at Euston and fill out a form. "OK," he said, with remarkable quiescence, "thanks."
The strange thing was that he hadn't been angry all along, or embarrassed. To him, the matter was straightforwardly financial and contractual, whereas to any Briton there would have been a class element, too, and they would have been unlikely to make the complaint in the first place because they would be aware of a subtext: I have paid not to be with hoi polloi, but now they're surrounding me. Instead, they would have simply turned the pages of their magazines, and seethed inwardly.