The other day, Southern Rail casually announced that, as of my birthday, it would be ceasing all off-peak trains between Brighton and London Victoria. It didn’t say “as of Nicholas Lezard’s birthday” in its press release, it just named the date, but I know when my birthday is and I know when a railway franchise is out to get me. This decision has been made, it said, due to platform-lengthening works at Gatwick. The disruption to the timetable, it said, would last at least two years.
Two long years, half the number of trains. (Thameslink will admittedly still be running services to London Bridge, but its trains are horrible.)
Over the last couple of years, since ejection from anything that might have looked like or pretended to be a permanent home, I’ve taken an awful lot of trains. Enough to justify buying a Network Railcard, but then you don’t have to take that many trains before the railcard starts paying for itself, though one must be travelling during off-peak times to use it. And so that is when I travel. Those of you who have to take the train at rush hour, you have my bottomless pity. To have to pay through the nose and stand up for the whole journey seems an injustice that cries to heaven, a cruelty that calls for revolution.
However, travelling off-peak has its drawbacks too. The main problem with doing so is that one is promised a journey of comfort and ease – one arrives at the train ten minutes before departure and looks at all the empty seats – only to have the comfort and ease cruelly snatched away. This will be because a Business Person has boarded and immediately started a conversation about spreadsheets that you know, from its pace and tone, will last the entire journey. There are a few tunnels beneath the South Downs where the signal cuts out, but once the train has burst out of them, the conversation will resume.
Then there will be the Person Eating Crisps. On one recent journey, which Southern Rail had, on a whim, decided to lengthen by an extra hour by going round the houses to Worthing and back, I saw, and heard, a trendy man in his early thirties go through an entire family-sized bag of Kettle Chips, which as everyone knows are the noisiest crisps on Earth, one by one. The rustle of the bag as the hand enters it. The blind rummage for the crisp. And then the mastication. Trendy Crisp Man might look young, but he was clearly brought up in an old-school way and told to chew his crisps 500 times before swallowing. Crunch, crunch, crunch. He managed to make the bag last all the way to Clapham Junction, ie five minutes or so from our final destination, by which time I was ready to commit murder. Crisps are great. I love crisps. But there should be rules. Just as there should be with hot food. The other day a woman on my train ate a pasty: not one of those artisanal pasties supplied by the West Cornwall Pasty Company, one of those pasties filled with dog food.
Then there are the kids. Schoolboys aren’t so bad and they tend to stay on only for a stop or two. But half term can be brutal. The other day I saw someone who was ineffectually saying “shush” to what sounded like four children having hysterics. Poor guy, I thought, but when he got off the train at Gatwick I saw that he had only been accompanied by one child all the time.
“Get noise-cancelling headphones,” a friend advises me. I don’t know. When you are on a budget of £10 a day the idea of spending anything between £40 and – Jesus, I’ve just looked this up – £314.99 for a pair of headphones seems unjustifiable.
“Earplugs, then,” said the friend when I objected, but really, what kind of a knob puts earplugs in when going on a train journey? Plus I keep forgetting to buy them. The chemist isn’t on the way to the station.
(By the way, I should point out that if a passenger is attractive enough, she can be eating crisps, talking with her mouth full on the phone and texting with sound-on keyboard all at the same time and it will be fine by me. This is awful, don’t think I don’t know it.)
Anyway, as of my birthday, all this will become academic. Our MP, Caroline Lucas, claims to have extracted a guarantee that people will be able to use the Gatwick Express at the same price as a Southern Rail ticket, but I’ll believe that when I see it. The real reason Southern Rail is doing this, I suspect, is because it doesn’t make all that much money from off-peak trains and so it is quite happy to do away with them altogether.
This is how the country as a whole is going to be run from now on. If it doesn’t make money for the directors and shareholders, screw it, and screw you. Send not to know for whom the train service is cancelled: it is cancelled for thee.
This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy