The Man in Seat 61 is an elaborate international train site that has always fascinated me, not least because it really is run entirely by a man. It connects the timetables of every train in the world and provides accurate routes and fares for any journey you should want, plus a means of booking – Bucharest to Indonesia, for instance. After 9/11, I was afraid of flying, and once took a train from Waterloo to Palermo on the advice of the Man, a journey of 30 hours. When the train reached the port of Messina to pass to Sicily, it slipped into a ferry crate and wobbled in the ocean for two hours, electricity turned off, lights out, air still, with many nuns lying on the sleeper bunks. Mark Smith informed me that Trenitalia has pulled its socks up since: I called him to see exactly who he was, and how on earth he keeps an eye on every train timetable in the world without his face melting.
Smith used to manage Charing Cross, Cannon Street and London Bridge stations and half of Victoria when the premises were run by Railtrack. Then he worked in fare regulation, “a poacher turned gamekeeper”. He’d started his career, from pure enthusiasm, selling European train tickets in the golden age of Eighties Interrailing. An early trip took him from Waterloo to Japan via Vladivostok. When he got there, he felt as though he was “on drugs… so full of arrival”, from the exhilaration of having travelled so far without once going in the air.
You’d not choose to make long journeys by train on your holidays unless you got off on it – just as you’d not choose to run a site like Smith’s unless part of your brain required to be regularly exercised in such a manner. Updating the European timetables in December every year takes him a week. He has men on the ground in New Zealand and Turkey, and people all over the world to tell him if there is a landslide. He monetises the site with affiliate schemes and ads. When we speak he has just returned from a reconnaissance trip: London to Paris, then the sleeper to Milan to check out the route through the new Gotthard Base Tunnel to Zurich and back in 48 hours. The sleeper has refurbished couchettes, which he needed to try, while the tunnel “has replaced the best, most scenic hour through the spirals of the high Alps with half an hour in a hole”. He wanted to know how nice the journey was with the hole. He decided that if you’ve never experienced it without the hole, you don’t know what you’re missing, so he could just about recommend it.
There are myths about train travel, he says, one being the expense: you wouldn’t walk up to a counter in Heathrow and expect to get to New York for cheap on a flexible fare the next day. “Somewhere the train PR has gone wrong. They’ve convinced people that London to Manchester is 300 pounds downwards while airlines have managed to convince us it’s 29 quid up.”
And the price of short distance fares? Entirely political: “Clause 8 of the Franchise Agreement allows the government to flex fares in any way it likes! The government could halve fares tomorrow on the commuter routes, but they’d have to decide whether to whack up income tax or borrow money and end up like Greece.”
What of the great problem of 2018: timetabling? “It’s a shag-up,” says the Man in Seat 61, “but not on the part of the operator. A railway is like a play; everyone knows their lines and they’ve done umpteen performances. When you change a timetable somewhere, everyone else has to check their lines.”
And the Thameslink shag-up? “Thameslink wasn’t your normal play – this was taking the London-Cambridge-Peterborough line and plugging it into a tunnel under London, sending the trains out the other side. No one knew the script! Read the editorial in Rail Magazine by Nigel Harris to see exactly what happened.”
Finally, I ask him about a new vogue I’ve come across: announcements of “we’re waiting for the driver”.
“Sometimes he comes in on the cushions on another train,” he explains. “Everything is connected to everything else, which Lenin said. And he wasn’t talking about the railways, but he might as well have been.”
This article appears in the 04 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit