For me, travelling by train is like making chili con carne. When it works, it’s a wonderful treat. Trains are the superior way of travelling, of course – buses are shit, cars are cramped, and the airlines go overboard with security – but all too often the chili sticks to the pan, incinerates my throat, and makes me visit the toilet too soon after eating. Multiple times1. I like to see lambs and strange villages out of the window, to sit back in my table seat with a drink and a book2, and to walk the length of the train whilst the carriages glide along. Unfortunately, not every train journey lives up to that fantasy.
I take quite a few train journeys each year, and a handful of them are long distance one which I go on with my younger brother3. I remember most of my long journeys, some more fondly than others, but a few months ago I had one of the most horrible of my short train-journeying life.
The day started out well: a nice early start for an 8-9 hour journey from the depths of England to the central belt of Scotland, involving 4 different trains, a 40 minute walk to the first station and a 20 minute walk between two later on, and a lift from the final station. Not to boast, but I tend to look forward to such a challenge, and if the weather’s decent even the walks can be quite enjoyable.
The first of our four trains was quite pleasant actually – it was a shame we were only on it for 5 minutes. At the next station, we found a bench on which we could wait the 30 minutes for our connection, and as I sat I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. I had been invited to a party; a friend was turning 18 the next week. I let him know that I’d be able to make it4, and I also mentioned the epic journey which I was undertaking. He replied, expressing pleasure at not being party to such a journey, and he wished me a happy birthday. I always suspected wishes didn’t come true.
The next train is where the fun began. The train was typically well loaded, but my brother and I were quick enough to jump on, dump our luggage and claim a table for ourselves. I’m a bit torn when it comes to the number of fellow passengers on a train. Part of the magic of train journeys has always been finding a quiet carriage and having it all to myself and a few friends, with plenty of room to stretch out and read a book in peace whilst the scenery slowly changes. On the other hand, I know that healthy passenger levels are exactly what the railways need if they are to survive and continue providing their service. I’ll settle for a Wilf carriage on all trains, just for me, if that’s alright.
A few minutes before we were due to leave the train, I thought it would be a good idea to go to the toilet whilst I still had the chance. We all know the story about train toilets – they’re smelly, they’re dirty, they’re out of soap5, and – let’s be honest – there’s no way they can realistically expect a man’s aim to remain true whilst the train shakes around like a fairground ride. This time, however, my downfall was none of these things. In the end, it was the bin that got me. After executing a flawless urination followed by a swift and effective hand washing and drying, I then had to dispose of the paper towels I had used. I searched for a bin and found it below the sink, which looked like a cat flap with the words “Litter” written across it. We all know how these cat flap type bins work, right? You push them with your hand, they open, you deposit your litter, and then you remove your hand, right? Wrong. Apparently, the rules have changed. You push the flap with our hand, it opens a little bit, so you push harder and harder again until a crack big enough to slip the paper towel down appears, and you release your litter into it. Then you innocently stop pushing on the flap with the intention of withdrawing your fingers when… THUMP! The lid slams shuts with the force of a catapult. When this happened, I think I let out a little yelp – the mechanism must have been designed for an oil tanker judging by the damage it did to my battle-weary right index finger6. When I managed to free my finger, I could see that it was bleeding, and more importantly, it fucking hurt. I placed it quickly under the tap to try and clean it, hoping that I hadn’t caught HIV7, but I couldn’t stay long, because I was soon to get off. I wrapped my finger in clean tissues and returned to my seat to collect up my luggage.
The walk to the next station through the centre of a town was largely uneventful, except for a consequence of something that I did part-way through. My brother and I visited Morrisons8. We were peckish, so I bought a few things: crisps, cookies, some Dr. Pepper and what I remember as a spicy beef and potato wrap. It looked tasty, very tasty, and I hadn’t had anything even remotely spicy in a long while, so I bought it and eagerly awaited its taste.
When we arrived at our next station, we had another half hour to wait until our second-to-last train arrived. I delved into my food, having a cookie or two and then I had half of my wrap. The food didn’t quite live up to my expectations, it was quite dry and wasn’t even that tasty. Even so, it was sustenance, so I finished the other half of the wrap and put the wrap and my disappointment out of my mind. That is where the wrap stayed – although only for the next 6 hours. On returning home, my disappointment grew hugely when I experienced what I shall call a ‘chili episode’9. Now, I’m no meatist – I’ve got some good friends who are cows – but I’m never eating beef again10.
Our train arrived and we promptly boarded, content to be well-fed (I was completely unaware of the evil being perpetrated by my beef wrap at this point) but shocked at the number of people already seated. If pushed to quantify it, I would probably describe the level of patronage of the train as ‘fucking packed’ – and the next train promised to be even worse. We would stay on this train for nearly 2 hours, and the next (and final) for another 4.
At least we had seats reserved, and on our final train, we found ourselves at a table facing an Australian couple. For my brother, this was an annoyance (he just wanted peace and quiet), but for me it was probably the highlight of the journey. They came from Perth in Western Australia, and were heading up to Edinburgh. I always find it interesting to learn about different people, especially foreigners, and watching this couple’s excitement as they see the Northumbrian coast for the first time was a treat. Still, for the several hours that we were on the train together, we only talked occasionally, and swapped the occasional sweet (they were very impressed by Maoams), leaving me plenty of time to play on my iPod.
All the time that this was going on however, there were other people in the carriage, people far far less amiable. The main culprits were an Asian family sat at the table on the other side of the aisle from us. Ever since we joined the train they had been a source of annoyance, forever running around and falling over, and making a lot of noise. As much as I don’t want to turn into a grumpy old man, this is not something that you want on a relaxing train journey. It quickly got worse, though, and any fears of overreaction on my part were quickly quashed.
The baby started crying. This wasn’t your typical variety of crying, however. This baby shrieked when it cried, as if it was being dangled in the jaws of a crocodile – except that it was sitting in a very comfortable seat on an air conditioned (and otherwise quiet) train. Brat. I tried to drown out the crying with my iPod – yes, bad for my ears, I know, but necessary. Yet my headphones, which can handle normally handle the sound heavy traffic and even the sound of roadworks, could not cope with the relentless noise of this kid. I just had to look out of the window and let my mind distract me… until my nose wouldn’t let me continue.
The smell started off very subtly to begin with. Yes, I know that smell, I thought to myself when I was finally starting to realise that this was not a good smell to be smelling, particularly in the enclosed space of a railway carriage. As it turns out, I knew the smell very well, as does everyone, but it still took me a while before I had to turn my head and look at the source of the smell – the Asian family across the aisle. Across the whole of the table, a couple of seats and a large patch of the floor was a generous spread of… Vomit. Sick. Spew. Honestly, I was a little bit amazed that such a small kid could keep that amount of vomit in its belly, but I was mainly disgusted and trying not to be sick myself. Even worse, the parents had given up on cleaning the sick after what must have been 5 seconds. They had clearly tried to clean it, but their efforts had only served to spread it around slightly on the table, as if by a wet mop, increasing its surface area considerably. The carriage fucking stank, but there was nothing I or anyone else could do. The were no staff around who could assist, and as the train was full, we couldn’t move to a different carriage. We would have to suffer as the smell slowly diffused throughout the train. Thank you National Express.
Do you want to know what was the most galling thing about the whole affair was? Five or ten minutes later, as we pulled into Newcastle, the Asian family simply stood up, took their bags and left the train11. What a great day to turn 1812, I thought to myself.
But you know what? Despite the spewing kid and the bad food and the bleeding finger… all of our 4 trains arrived exactly on schedule13. Now that was the real surprise.
- Though the farts always smell good enough to eat. ↩
- Or my iPod. They now have power outlets on trains that you can plug your laptop or iPod into, and Wi-Fi for interneting. Handy. ↩
- It’s a strange feeling, with so many years of him being my little brother, but he’s taller than me now. Only a little bit though, maybe an inch, maximum, if that. He’ll tell you it’s more though, but he’ll be wrong. ↩
- It turned out to be a very good party, best one of the year probably. So far. ↩
- Often, there’s no soap, which is annoying but not horrible. What’s worse is when there’s soap but no water, and all you can do is try fruitlessly to wipe off the lather with a paper towel. I always check the water before applying soap, now. You should do the same. ↩
- You’ll hear more about the wounds sustained by this finger in the near future. ↩
- Really, who knows what kind of germs could have been lurking on the lid of a bin in the train’s toilet? ↩
- The one pictured here, OMG! Can you tell where it is? ↩
- At least I was able to use my nice clean facilities at home. It was a very small consolation though – I didn’t even feel like eating any of my birthday cake afterwards. Devastating. ↩
- That’s a complete lie. ↩
- I felt really sorry for the people who had reserved the seats from Newcastle northwards. ↩
- My first official day as an adult, though I don’t know how long it will be before I feel like one. Not that the train companies care, they’ve been charging me an adult fare since I was 16. Bastards. ↩
- Unlike a journey about a month ago for which I am investigating compensation. ↩