In which The Author reads a book about the rail industry
Yesterday I finished reading Matthew Engel’s book Eleven Minutes Late, (Pan Macmillan, 2009) which I can heartily recommend to anyone with an interest in the rail industry, social history, or travelling in the UK. Mr Engel’s book cleverly weaves these three strands together, following his journeys along the main lines and branch lines of this small island. He meets a host of people who work or travel on the trains, and chronicles the random development of the railway network over two centuries.
The book ends with him back on his home turf, travelling to his local station at Newport (Gwent), as the rail companies call it these days. I thought I’d share some of his observations with you. He started his journey at Holyhead – almost – as this extract explains:
[T]he 1635 back to Cardiff, now operated by Arriva Trains Wales, did its best to go nowhere near Holyhead either, starting out 300 yards away from the buffers and the ticket halls, as though holding its nose. Holyhead is almost as dingy as Morecambe, but not as snarly.
The service from Holyhead to Cardiff could be described as the national train of Wales, linking the towns of the north with the nation’s capital. Every nation needs a crack express and this one took a mere four and three-quarter hours to cover the journey, not much longer than Edinburgh to London. That journey just happens to be 393 miles and Holyhead to Cardiff is 253, or 190 for a self-respecting crow. No one had yet given this a name to match the Flying Scotsman, so we had better try. Welcome aboard the Limping Welshman.
Lots of nations would be proud of such a train: Liberia, Somalia, Equatorial Guinea, the list goes on. However, the politicians of these countries would jib at the fact that the three major junctions on the service, Chester, Crewe and Shrewsbury, are all in another country. There was no dining car. I never even glimpsed a trolley which is always a regret on Arriva Trains Wales because there is a slim chance of meeting their star employee Paul, who flogs his limited range of sandwiches with a surreal spiel worthy of a grander setting: ‘Anaconda! Thomson’s gazelle! And … um … egg.’
Oddly, the dining problem was being addressed at that very moment. Against the trend and against their own normal approach to investment (pardon?) and customer service (wassat?), Arriva Trains Wales had decided to institute one daily train that’s a fraction faster, with a first-class-cum-dining car. Since the members of the Welsh Assembly are the group most likely to use this service regularly, one can only interpret this as an attempt to keep them onside pending the renewal of the franchise.
If you can, try and get your hands on the 2010 paperback edition, which comes with an afterword. In that fascinating appendix to the main body of evidence, Mr Engel catches a ‘mystery train’, which seems to have been laid on entirely to serve members of the Welsh Assembly and their
hangers-on research staff. I won’t spoil your fun by telling you what happens once he eventually manages to get on board.