Seatless on an overcrowded train to Edinburgh and a foretaste of our collapsing infrastructure

As I returned to sit on the floor it started, amazingly, to rain on me; the window had a leak. Is this what Brexit is going to be like?  

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Another journey like that and I am done for.

It could have been worse, though. I could have decided not to buy the ludicrously overpriced snacks from the artisanal food market outside King’s Cross station. £4.50 for a bagel! £4 for a few slices of chorizo wrapped in a paper cone! But if I hadn’t... it doesn’t bear thinking about.

It became clear that something was wrong when I got inside the station, and I saw all the people staring up at the departures board in a way suggestive of great and increasing anxiety. I’d decided to take the 2pm train. A comfy seat, a sandwich, maybe a couple of those little bottles of wine, sleep all the way to Edinburgh. Who travels at 2pm? I thought. (A second consecutive night of insomnia had ruled out the 11am.) Well, everyone, it turns out. When the platform was announced, a scant two minutes before the train was scheduled to leave, people ran. It was like being transported back to some grand wartime narrative of displacement and loss, and I half expected to see forlorn children in flat caps carrying battered suitcases and with labels tied to their coats, bearing the names of rural destinations.

I managed, in the end, or rather at the beginning, to find a nice little spot against a door, by the toilet. A woman who needed a stick to walk commandeered it, and good for her. I can fold up quite small, like one of those bicycles, so at least until Peterborough I had something like a seat, if you call the floor a seat. I drifted off. At Peterborough an angry little man with grey hair, about my age, shouted and swore at me while he made his escape. Dazed, I was a little slow for his liking, but he got off the train in plenty of time, which he used to turn to me and swear some more. I couldn’t think of anything to say back to him, which is probably just as well. Meanwhile, several slices of chorizo rolled out of my pocket and on to the floor. Have you ever looked closely at the floor of a train by the toilet? I mean really closely? It’s not very nice.

At Newark things got a bit worse and now it was standing room only, as a man called Shane carrying a huge bag got on. I know he was called Shane because he had it tattooed on the back of his neck. (It seemed pretty safe to assume that Shane was not the name of his lover.) Shane had had a little argument with one of the railway staff on the platform; Shane had asked if there were any seats in first class, and the guard had answered his question with a question, viz: Did he have a first-class ticket? The question was clearly rhetorical, expecting the answer “no”, and Shane wondered aloud, as he squeezed into the last available space, whether he should have decked the railway employee. I like to think I am good at sizing people up and even from our scant acquaintance it looked as if Shane was extremely well practised in decking people, so I decided that while we were crammed up against each other the best thing to do would be to make friends with him.

Shane got off at Doncaster, freeing up quite a bit of space (he was rather wide, but in a way suggestive of muscle, rather than fat), and I was able to fold myself up again, but not before looking up and down the carriages and noticing that it was standing room only everywhere else, and that it would have been impossible to get to the buffet car even if I’d wanted to. As I returned to the floor it started, amazingly, to rain on me; the window had a leak. Is this, I wondered, what Brexit is going to be like?  It thinned out at Newcastle, enough for me to get a seat. A real seat. I used to work as a copywriter, and my mind drifted back to the days of slogans. “You know what?” I texted the Welsh Enchantress. “Seats are hugely underrated. So gentle to your bum.”

We got into Dundee an hour late; it was dark; the taxi driver grumbled a bit about the trip to Alyth, and I spent all my last money on him. I have to remember that when I travel to and from here, it’s not just the £150 return ticket, but an extra £100 in taxis and snacks and drinks and what have you. I meant to go back down to London in the middle of October, and then again at the beginning of November; I really don’t think I can face it.

Several days on, and I am beginning to recover from the experience, although my bank balance is going to have to wait until tomorrow. Meanwhile, I wonder if the experience truly was a foretaste of collapsing infrastructure. If so, at least people comported themselves with good humour (Angry Peterborough Man aside). But the experience has left me with a terrible apprehensive phobia of train journeys. I mean, it’s one thing to experience that kind of discomfort, and another thing entirely to be charged to the point of ruin for the privilege. LNER now stands, in my mind, for “Let’s Never, Ever Return”; but I have to. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 05 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right