I was watching a TV programme about the railways last night. Drawing heavily on the work of the poet John Betjeman, the commentator droned on about the good old days of steam, and the lack of character in today's stations.
For example, at York Station he pointed out that what used to be the signal box is now a Costa Coffee house. Good. Back in September I was in York station after a conference, and being a couple of hours early for my train, I had far more use for a Costa than a signal box.
Anyone who can witter on about the golden age of rail either has some sort of false memory syndrome, or only used the railways for the odd jaunt to a seaside. As someone who uses trains quite frequently, let me say this:
- A train journey that used to take over 4 hours now takes two.
- Stations that used to have just one horrible cafe/bar now have at least one reasonably OK cafe in which to sit and wait for your train.
- British Rail sandwiches, infamous for their curling edges, have been replaced by freshly-made sandwiches and various exotic items like paninis.
- The cold, damp and boring waiting room, often used as a urinal by drunks, have been replaced, or supplemented, by seats under a roof, and shops you can browse in.
- Although I always like a shower when I've been travelling, at least I don't come home with bits of soot in my hair from the steam.
- And on that subject, the environment is a lot healthier as a result of the demise of steam.
I too like the idea of steam: the particular sound as the train gradually picked up a head of steam, and the special rhythm of its clatter over the rails. But I suspect that it's more a hankering after lost boyhood and the associated innocence of childhood than a desire for old technology. Don't get me wrong: I'm not an ardent lover of technology purely for its own sake, as any regular visitor to the ICT in Education website will tell you. But there's a danger in over-sentimentality too.
Good luck to those who dream of times gone by. For me, railway travel now is infinitely more pleasant than it used to be.