The Joy of Essex: How I find myself on the wrong side of the tracks

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in trains – after Rousseau.

ON the first day of September I took a train journey back to Wivenhoe from Saxmundham in Suffolk. It’s a pleasant journey to Ipswich, although it doesn’t always feel like a train: more a sort of slow bus on rails. At Saxmundham station I heard a gaggle of young women conversing in “New Posh”, a modern dialect of throttled vowels, unnecessary question marks and arbitrary insertions of the word “like”. Example: “Y’aykay? My name’s Sayphie? And I am, like, a steedent?”

Some of the girls carried sleeping bags. My Dadsnet training manual told me they’d probably been doing something which girls call “a sleepayva”. On the train, newish, cleanish and noisy, were some young Suffolk lads going to a football match. They cast admiring glances at the leggier posh girls. The mood of the entire train, on an early autumn Saturday, was cheerful.

The conductor, whom we never met, made repeated announcements that, because his machine had developed a fault, no tickets could be sold. I considered the full incompetence of this equation: no ticket office open at the station + on-board ticket machine broken. I mentally added it to my yet-to-be-written best-seller: The Self-Knackering Tendencies of Capitalism Vol 15 – Transport. They get rid of station staff and ticket offices, then spend a fortune on electronic security, along with one-man-operated computerised ticket machines – which break. One of the football fans, with quiet incredulity, told his friends he’d travelled an entire journey the previous week for nothing. He couldn’t find anyone to take his fare.

One recent noticeable change is that many of the trains are new. They’re smarter and cleaner, with new loos, rather than those self-opening Blake’s Seven-looking things which still cause anxiety.

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Unfortunately, the general “infrastructure” – a lovely word, which always sounds so authoritative – still needs upgrading. This is the probable reason for those frequent “improvements” which take place at weekends on bank holidays, causing your train to turn into a “replacement” – or, in lay terms, a rattly old bus. What they’ve done, essentially, is akin to putting a bit of lippy and a basque on an arthritic old tapir in the forlorn hope that you’ll mistake it for Madonna and ask it out.

Ipswich station, when I arrived, was crowded. The Colchester train which I should have taken was unfeasibly full. So, having helped another passenger load both of her “steedent” daughters and their huge amount of luggage on to the train, I stepped back off it and went in search of a ticket and a newspaper.

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In the ticket hall there was a general kerfuffle. At many mainline stations, nowadays, the automated ticket barriers are so temperamental that a member of staff must be in permanent attendance in order to assist baffled passengers manually through a wider barrier in his charge. Unsurprisingly, the atmosphere at stations during these busy times may feel somewhat tense. Go in search of little comforts, however, and you’ll find that they come dear. For instance, chewing gum costing 50 pence in an average sweetshop will cost 72 pence from the franchise confectionery provider on the platform.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as a small boy, I was sometimes on long train journeys with my dad. The great Victorian London stations – Kings Cross, St Pancras and Waterloo – were all familiar to me. They were enormous, echoey places with sooty arches, blackened girders and grimy latticed footbridges. They smelled of steam trains and cigarettes and still had cavernous underground loos reeking of Jeyes fluid. There were few food franchises. Instead, there were newspaper stands, cigarette kiosks and, of course, the tea trolley ladies.

These women, with cigarettes dangling from their lips, called you “Luv” in a croaky voice, winking at you with a wartime eye while they

served up stewed tea or coffee.

As a child facing a long journey, I wasn’t allowed coffee. Instead, I’d be offered “milk and a dash”, an anaemic concoction of hot water, milk, sugar and a splash of coffee, all quickly frothed up with a blast of steam.

Railway waiting rooms in winter had linoleum floors, brown benches and a coalfire glowing in them. Food sold on stations at that time had yet to become an industry.

This was for the simple reason that most trains still had on-board buffets, where you could buy a cooked meal of sorts, or bacon rolls, along with the infamous curly sandwiches.

Was rail travel better? Well, it was dirtier and it was smokier. I’m not sure if the trains were more punctual or not, but fares were cheaper.

The trains served many more stations. Things were easier for cyclists because most trains had guards’ vans. Country stations, too, were better cared for. In fact, they were often charming. Great Bentley station, well into the 1970s, still had flowerbeds and a little fishpond.

Answer the question, though, Minister. Was train travel better back then? (A pause.) Yep.

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