The Joys Of Commuting

One of the interesting things about modern life is the ability to commute longer and longer distances, and with developments like new high speed rail, this looks set to continue. My first few jobs – evening and weekend jobs when at school – were being a paperboy, then working in a supermarket, and then as a bouncer in a social club, and with each of those, I lived close enough to walk to work. I have had other jobs too that I could walk to, although I remember working in Kuwait where it could be so overbearingly hot that people would drive a short distance rather than walk so that they could stay in an air conditioned environment all of the way. It was so hot that one of my colleague’s shoes melted when she was walking to a meeting. Apparently the most appropriate thing to say in this circumstance is not “buy better shoes then”. …

Over the years, I have had various lengths of commute to the office, from a few minutes’ walk to a few hours’ flight. I remember moving from working around Heathrow, where my commute from Hertfordshire was about 45 minutes normally, 30 minutes on a good day, or well over an hour in the event of traffic, to the midlands. I went to an estate agent in Castle Donington – as mentioned in this post – and as it was quiet, being between Christmas and New Year, I struck up a conversation with the person working there. I said that I was moving to work in Donington, and had no idea where I wanted to live, but that I would be moving to the area. He asked me how far I was willing to commute, and I said “a reasonable distance”, which I accepted is not the most precise of answers. He said “five minutes? Ten? Would you be prepared to do fifteen?”, and I realised that we were seeing things rather differently.

I spent five and a half years working there, with a pleasant twenty minute commute that was blighted with traffic maybe once per year. The first time that I was stuck in traffic, it was because the A42 had closed because a lorry load of beer had crashed into a lorry load of marshmallows. There was no punchline, it actually happened, but it felt like there should be one. On my last traffic incident on that route, a year or so ago, I stopped because of a queue to get off the road, and could see in the mirror that a car coming towards me at some speed was not concentrating on the road in front, and instead the driver was more concerned with finding what was in her handbag. She realised at the last minute; I managed to swerve off the road and up a verge to stop her from hitting me, and she just stopped less than an inch from the next car. She looked a bit panicked at this, and looked over at me. I waved that I was fine, and the traffic started moving. My last sight of her was as she was speeding off again, with her make up from her handbag now in hand, and being busy applying that, whilst driving at speed.
One of the most interesting things about commuting is the human interaction, or lack of it, that you experience. I understand that whilst you are driving, you are in your own metal box, and generally do not interact with anyone else, other than those who are remarkably keen to get ahead of every other car on the road, and prevent anyone else from overtaking them. You know the types that I mean. However, it amuses me that the same mentality often seems to extend to those commuting by train. This is made even more the case with good wifi on trains and provision of the BBC’s radio iplayer service. My morning companions are Charlotte Smith from Farming Today, then the team from the Today programme each morning, which educate and inform me about the world. I learn more about the EU from Farming Today than any other source. Well worth a listen.

I used to commute by train many years ago, from Larne to Belfast in Northern Ireland. The only people with whom I would interact were those whom I already knew. The same is true today. I see the same faces every morning and evening, and the most we ever get is an occasional smile of recognition. One chap gets on with three colleagues every day, and has a rather loud voice. Even louder than me. I can tell you more about his kitchen than my own. He has recently had his kitchen re-built, and he would defy anyone to spot the join between the slabs of Italian marble that make up his work surfaces, and he is remarkably proud of his under floor heating. Some of this I glean from standing near him on the platform at either end, and some from being in the same carriage – not even sitting near – as him. I suspect that if some quirk of fate ever sees me abandoned alone in his kitchen, I could competently navigate my way through the homes for various utensils and cooking products, and even manage to find the hidden switch to keep my feet warm.

I remember being on a broken down train from Larne to Belfast once, which meant that everyone was going to be late for work. Of course, we all just sat there. One intrepid fellow commuter stood up in a rage and encouraged others to come with him to sort it out. No one moved. He walked through the carriage screaming “you are all @!#$ sheep!” as he went to see the staff on board. A few minutes later he came back and quietly sat down and we continued to sit there until a replacement engine could move us. To be fair, no one baaed at him.

Coming back once on the same line, the train got stuck because of seaweed on the track. To put this in context, the line runs for a little bit on a spit of land just wide enough for the track, built a little bit away from the coast, so that you have the Irish sea on either side of the train. I suspect the area between the track and the coast may technically be a lagoon, but you know what I mean. The train stopped, and the waves were crashing into the side of the train, some throwing water and seaweed over the top and down the other side. A group of school kids travelling home rammed the doors open – you could force them open on those carriages even when you were not supposed to – and stand to see how they could cope with the power of the water. Of course, the wave would hit the train, and sometimes soak them and occasionally knock them over. This did, of course, cause those sitting near the door also to get rather wet. One chap seemed to get annoyed at this after a few waves, by which time the floor was soaking, went over to the teenagers, told them to stop, gave one a slap, and they sat down. The seaweed was cleared and we continued.

Most commuters are travelling around the same time, and at those times, most passengers are commuters. I remember one incident on a train from London to Manchester that we were on to get to a 9am meeting in Stockport, a woman got on the train and tried to befriend one of my colleagues. She was an interesting character, with her face covered in tattoos, and was drinking cans of strong lager. She told us that she had just been “released” that morning, although we did not enquire as to where from, and she was going to visit some friends. As the lager went down, her singing voice went up, and she kept trying to give a teddy bear to my colleague. He declined. He seemed genuinely terrified by the whole experience, and although she was certainly a little eccentric, was drunk before 8am, and had did seem to have some issues, she was nothing but friendly and engaging.

The best time to travel, though, to meet the more unusual travellers is outside the regular commuter hours. I travelled home a little later than normal one evening this week, after going to a colleague’s leaving drinks. I got on the 2051 train, and within a couple of stops, four young men got on and pretended to be asleep. The conductor came, and asked for their tickets. They kept sleeping. She seemed to know what was going on, gave them a shake and pointed out that they could not be asleep, or at least that deeply, as they had only just got on. It transpired that none of them had a ticket, nor the means to get one. Each one said that another had his ticket, and they should not pay a penalty fare because they had a ticket, jus that their friend was holding on to it. The conductor made an announcement for a member of the British Transport Police to come to our carriage, and then she called someone on her mobile. The four were ejected at the next stop, with almost no delay. We got to Leicester, and two young men ran on the train, and, out of breath, congratulated each other on making the train that they had been sure that they were going to miss, and that they would soon be in Sheffield. I spoiled the party by telling them that this was the train to Nottingham. The same conductor appeared, and was the personification of helpfulness. She worked out the best way for them to complete their journey, and I last saw them getting off at Loughborough station to wait their two hours for a train to Sheffield, complete with directions from the conductor as to where to find a good but cheap nearby chip shop that might pass the time better than sitting in the station.

My other area for amusement on trains is the on board announcements. Normally, these sound bland and scripted, although every so often, particularly in the event of a delay for which there is no script, then some ad libing is required, which is make or break for those providing the announcements. One of the conductors working on East Midlands Trains is French, with a very stereotypical French accent. His voice is rich and velvety, and he does get the attention of most of the women on the train every time he makes an announcement. I suspect that he could announce just about anything and it would sound great.

A couple of his colleagues make the announcements for the tea trolley sound more amusing. One is always keen to promote his range of lagers and spirits first thing in the morning, and build up rapport with people, and another was walking through the train last week picking up rubbish, asking “Any rubbish? Empty coffee cups? Biscuit wrappers? Newspapers? Laptops, ipods or earphones?”. He mentioned that so far on this train, lost property included an ipod, a laptop and now an ipad.

However, the moment of fame that is provided by the requirement to make an announcement to a train full of people is all too much for some, and soon the biggest casualty of these information sound bites is the English language. This week, we were informed that, due to the short platform at Kettering and Wellingborough, coach N would not be “platforming” there, and instead passengers would need to make their way along the train. This was repeated for each stop.

I tweeted East Midlands Trains a note of congratulations about their development of our languages, and they responded very well. They made contact, and asked for input on announcements. I was impressed at their use of social media. This is the same company that, when I tweeted that I was worried there was no tea service on the train after waiting half an hour for one to appear, the tea trolley appeared within about a minute. I presume that was coincidence, otherwise I am remarkably impressed.

So, if you are travelling by train, you may not get much interaction with your fellow passengers, and you may need to check that you are going the right way, but at least you may just learn new and exciting ways to use the English language.