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22 December 2009

The pathetic story of “travel chaos“

What kind of city do we live in?

By James Macintyre

Despite the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man — or worse, a “why oh why?” reactionary — I am moved today to join in the chorus of outrage over the “travel chaos” sweeping across the UK. Isn’t it a little pathetic that this country appears to grind to a halt at the first sign of what Eurostar — which has finally resumed its “service” this morning — has called “French fluffy snow”?

Talking of matters French, and the Eurostar, I narrowly avoided being stranded in Paris last week (just my luck), though I did experience delays on both legs of the journey — thanks to problems on the British side. As ever, the contrast between Continental and English travel was clear, this time on the Métro, as so often on national trains.

The Paris Métro is not only a good deal more airy and pleasant than the London Underground thanks to considerable sections which run overground (including over the Seine, a much prettier river than the Thames); it is also an altogether calmer experience thanks to infinitely fewer announcements. On the Métro, an authentic-sounding female voice quietly states the name of the station approaching, twice — and that’s it. On a Saturday evening there is none of the shouting, the leering, the gangs of lads on their way to the football.

Having travelled painlessly to the French side of the Eurostar on the Métro for my return, I was then — at the other end of the journey — immediately given a taste of the stark contrast in London: waiting, as I did last night and this morning, for several Tubes to come and go, too crammed to take on passengers (or “customers”). Worst of all, there were the endless and completely pointless psuedo-announcements and the incessant and very loud repitition of where you are, what the next station is and where the train terminates.

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These, needless to say, are minor tales compared to those of people snowed in across the UK today, unable to join friends and family for the festive period. And there is, of course, no party political point to be made here: I know for a fact that Andrew Adonis is doing all he can as Transport Secretary vastly to improve our trains, bringing in high-speed rail with great energy and, in the face of the frankly disastrous aftermath of rail privitisation, modernising our system so it compares at last to the best of the Continent and beyond. Meanwhile I have little doubt that Boris Johnson, although he’s presiding over some fare hikes that look pretty ironical this morning, wants to make the Tube an altogether better experience.

Instead, this is a question of culture. France, for example, is a country that inherently looks to the state to provide good public services, including trains. In that sense, it retains some of its somwhat introverted and deeply civilised character, has not been completely ravaged by discredited capitalism, and still fundamentally works as a nation. England, on the other hand, does not appear to be working properly this morning, and I for one find that embarrassing.







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