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Conditions of carriage

Trains are the "mode of the moment". But where's the romance in today's railway journey?

At Waterloo Station ticket office, a sign reads: "Stand here to join the queuing system." The word queue is depressing enough, but "queuing system" . . . that's real sadism.

At Clapham Junction, an announcement begins, "Due to short platforms . . ." I block my ears against the rest.

I board a train from King's Cross, and am informed that a refreshments trolley will be making its way through the train as though doggedly propelled by some arthritic old retainer; later, I am informed that "no hot drinks will be available from this trolley, owing to a technical fault". But how technical can the fault actually be? The boiler's broken, simple as that.

In spite or perhaps because of the recession, our railways could be on the brink of a comeback. Passenger numbers are at their highest since the 1940s, and environmentalism is giving the railways a moral advantage over the airlines, many of which, thank God, will go bust in the coming months.

Meanwhile, I would like to propose some cheap cosmetic improvements that might restore some of the romance lost from the industry, dealing first with those achievable by changes in railway language. It should be recalled that, in art, railways have usually been depicted as the impersonal agents of rapid change, whether in Zola's novel La Bête Humaine, which culminates in a runaway train carrying carriage-loads of soldiers to symbolic doom, or in the film Brief Encounter, in which furiously bustling engines (the director, David Lean, told the drivers to "let rip") alternately unite and divide Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson.

A certain arrogance, leading to a certain terseness of language, would seem to become such an industry, and I would commend this linguistic economy to all on-board customer service managers ("guards", as they should once again be called). Their zombiefied refrain "We would like to apologise for the delay and any inconvenience this may cause" ought to be heard no more. If necessary, yes, apologise for delay, but let's forget about "any inconvenience this may cause". Let's take that as read. And the guards should generally be less craven. I do not notice the airlines apologising for being this country's fastest-rising cause of global warming, or for the hellish noise blight they create.

Our train operators neither build their trains nor control the track, so the way they "make a difference" (as I would encourage them not to say) is by being "customer-facing" (as I would also encourage them not to say). In practice, this means speaking to us more than we would like to be spoken to. Any announcement beginning: "This is the last and final call for . . .", "Please take a moment to familiarise yourself with . . .", or "I would like to take this opportunity . . ." should be banned.

The train operators must also agree on how to describe a station. After thinking about this for a long time, I have concluded that the word "station" would do very well; not "calling point", not "station stop". Certainly, I can see the nannyish logic of the phrase. It sends the following message, for those times when the train might be held at a signal: "This is a stop, but it is not a station stop. You will notice there's nothing but fields on all sides; that's a clue telling you that you can't get off here."

But my definition of glamorous rail travel is speed plus silence. You ought to be able to read on a train. It's part of the dreaminess of the experience. On Swiss railways, there are one-word announcements as a station is approached: "Berne," says a disinterested male voice. If you miss Berne, tough. In Switzerland, it is also taken for granted that you will take care of your possessions and personal belongings (as if there's any frigging difference between the two).

As far as I'm aware, you are not warned to "take care because the platform might be slippery" as you disembark from Swiss trains, and this in a country where there is quite a good chance of it being slippery. Over here, there's less chance, but the warning is still becoming standard. By the same token, a cup of coffee purchased at the buffet - or the shop, as it is baldly and distressingly called on Virgin Pendolinos - must be carried in a paper bag for consumption at your seat. And all train fronts must now be painted a vile yellow to make them more visible, whereas I would prefer to rely on the traditional, admirably curt warning "Beware of trains".

Along with ingratiating PR, health and safety has filled the void left by the decline of an engineering culture. We have all of the warnings, all of the neuroses, and yet we are not allowed to savour the power and speed that give rise to the danger in the first place. We should be able to open the windows and stick our heads out to experience the velocity, as Turner did before painting Rain, Steam and Speed: the Great Western Railway, in which an engine (a Gooch Firefly 2-2-2, if you want to be pedantic about it) gains on a fleeing hare. Train drivers should also dress the part. High-visibility vests may be a regrettable necessity (although I think they're more of a fetish), but it wouldn't kill anyone to banish the V-neck jumpers.

And trainspotters ought to be welcomed rather than regarded with suspicion. When recently, as part of its campaign against terrorism, the British Transport Police warned the public to report anyone taking pictures in railway locations who looked "weird", many train enthusiasts took this personally. It's a miracle that anyone at all should be interested in the stunted, un-aerodynamic multiple units that make up most of our rolling stock - one for which their operators should be grateful. And why are these trains such horrible colours? Is it to deter artists from cluttering up station platforms?

Let's also remember that trains are not aeroplanes. Let's not bother with the preliminary safety lecture, or boast of "airline seats". Let's not announce, as one First Great Western guard was apparently in the habit of doing, "We are now commencing our approach to Bristol Temple Meads." The railways are the mode of the moment. They should try to keep that in mind.

"Between the Lines: Railways in Fiction and Film", presented by Andrew Martin, will be broadcast at 9pm on Thursday 9 October on BBC4

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power