Wednesday, May 11, 2011

eleven minutes late

review of:

Eleven minutes late
Matthew Engel
Macmillan 2009 / Pan paperback 2010

This month it’s 18 years since I moved to the UK, so I’m coming of age as a UK resident, but one of the things that still puzzle me to this day is why the railways aren’t working. The symptoms are familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to travel by train here – half an hour after the start of your journey, the train may stop because of a “signal failure” or something similarly unconvincing, sit on the same spot for any time between ten minutes and two hours, and then crawl onward to your destination. Or you try travelling on a Sunday, and find that all trains have been replaced by buses, due to scheduled engineering work. And as most of the network (including the lines out of Oxford) isn’t even electrified, the trains aren’t much better than buses anyway, and not much better for the environment, as they burn diesel like the buses do.

But why? With my anti-corporate instincts, I might have put the blame on privatisation, which happened soon after I arrived here, so I don’t have as many bad memories of British Rail as I have of the privatised mess that came after its demise. Engel’s book, part travelogue, part amateur history of the railways in the UK, reassures me that privatisation isn’t where things started going wrong. Apparently, they have been going wrong from the start, or at least from the point when speculative building of railways in random places led to a bubble and the inevitable implosion.

Since then, the railways have always been under the control of people who didn’t care about their passengers or services, and who made every conceivable error and a few inconceivable ones on top of that. All this makes for a fascinating read and would be really funny if it was fiction, but sadly it happens to be history and current affairs, and it continues to bring real misery to real people.

I like to spend my holidays in continental Europe and typically travel by train, so I get regular reminders of the fact that it is actually physically possible to run a rail network that gets people from A to B at the advertised time, in comfort, and at a fraction of the price one would pay in the UK (see my praise of ICE and TGV). However, Engel suffocates any nationalist pride I might develop when thinking of the German railways too much by reminding me that the efficiency of their infrastructure is largely due to the fact that it was planned strategically by the Prussian rulers. They didn’t care about the travelling public either, but they did care a lot about moving troops across the country as efficiently as possible.

Amazingly, their warmongering motivation has produced an invaluable asset for peaceful travellers using the network more than 1.5 centuries later. Come to think of it, the Bundesbahn network is strongest in north-south directions, transporting holiday makers to the Alps or the North Sea, while military aggression was typically directed in eastern or western direction, so maybe somebody secretly did think of the travelling public after all.

Engel starts out by describing his own exploration of Britain’s rail network with the benefit of a rover card, then slips into chronological history mode, and only returns to his exploits at the end. Given the sheer mindboggling madness of his subject matter, however, even the chronological core of the book is never at risk of becoming tedious. It reads like Alice in Wonderland, you fully expect to see the Mad Hatter turning up any time.

The title of the book refers to one of the many symptoms of systemic madness. Up to and including ten minutes after the advertised arrival time, a long-distance train is still recorded as “on time.” (In fact, I have seen trains listed as on time on departure boards half an hour after their scheduled departure time had gone by.) Thus, the author hoped on his exploratory travels to catch a train that was more than ten minutes late. In a freak coincidence, none of his trains was.

Engel also offers explanations for the trials and tribulations we suffer locally. I knew that the absence of a line linking Oxford to Cambridge is because this line was closed down in the 60s. What I didn’t know was that this happened within months of the same government’s decision to build a new city adjacent to this doomed line: Milton Keynes. Britain’s largest new town was actually built on land belonging to the village of Bletchley, which had a station on the so-called Varsity line. Oxford-MK-Cambridge would have been a valuable link saving thousands of unnecessary rail travels through London and road trips through the Chilterns every year. The author’s comment, concise and to the point: “Crazy.”

As for the line leading north from Oxford, to Worcester and Hereford, Engel says “much of the route was single-tracked to save money.” They actually paid people to rip out tracks from an operating double track railway line to convert it back to single track? Why don’t we single-track a couple of A roads as well? That would save money on fixing those potholes. And does the M40 really need four lanes between Oxford and London, in these cash-strapped times?

Engel also examines the political short-termism that is partially to blame for all this. Obviously, people who only think as far as the next election won’t be spending much time planning a railway system for the next decades. Maybe France has the TGV because its presidents served for seven years at the time when that kicked off? I’m not quite convinced yet, but it might be an explanation.

For all his brilliant (yet amateur, thus accessible) analysis, Engel can’t offer any remedies to fix this mess. Personally, when the pain gets too strong, I take a coach to London, and the Eurostar from there.

A freight carriage rotting away at Oxford station - I presume it is being used as a storage shed.

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