Friday, March 30, 2012

Why I Love Train Travel in England

I was on the train to Cardiff to see my aunts and a cousin who were there for a rugby game this past Thursday. I spent about three and a half hours on the train, going from Stratford-upon-Avon, to Birmingham Moor Street, to Birmingham New Street, to Bristol Parkway, to Cardiff Central. Sounds like a lot, but it was not that bad.

Anyway, on with what I love about British train travel. I have only really taken trains in America twice: once on a trip to the east coast and once from Tacoma to San Francisco. The east coast trip was fine, the Tacoma to San Francisco was the worst travel experience of my life (including the 12 hour night-bus across Turkey that stopped every 30 minutes). Here is why:

The train was three hours late by the time it arrived in Tacoma. The real amazing thing was that it left Seattle, its point of origin, on time, and made no stops between Seattle and Tacoma (a driving time of maybe 40 minutes). Strike 1. Then, mom and John got a private berth; I was stuck in the lowest class (not sure what the official term is) in a single seat surrounded by other people, including many, many children. Strike 2! Every time another train approached ours we were forced to stop, allowing it to pass (they have to do this because the train company does not own the tracks, and so has to give way to all other traffic). This would not have been quite so intolerable had they not accounted for this in the time the journey takes, because it clearly happens every time they make the journey. STRIKE 3!

So for all of you who understand baseball you should realize that the train company has struck out already, and we haven’t even left Oregon yet! Stay tuned for more annoyance.

The dining car was abysmal. About 1/3 of the booths were used for storage of random crap, there was very little choice in what you could eat and almost none of the food was warm. My mom ordered a Corona (for something ridiculous like $6.00), and when she told the waiter it was flat and stale he said too bad, and refused to give her another or refund her money, because she had taken more than one sip from the bottle.

We eventually arrived in San Francisco, about seven hours late. I was so pissed off that I refused to take the train back and made mom buy me a plain ticket to fly home (I was still young enough that I could do that). The price of the train tickets actually cost about the same as plane tickets, but John was and is afraid of flying (which he will not admit) and so we were forced to take the journey-of-the-damned-by-train.

Now what does this have to do with traveling by train in England? Well, I have never had an experience on the train in Europe that even comes close to the hell that was that trip. By contrast, if a train is 30 minutes or more late in England, they are legally obliged to refund all of your ticket. If this were the policy of the train company we used to San Francisco, they would be bankrupt. The trains are much more comfortable, even the crap trains in England are more comfortable than the seat I had to SF.

But the crowning glory, in my most humble of opinions, is the people watching. Generally, I do not get the idea of people watching. How can someone sit down and just watch people walk? It is s boring. However, when I am on a train I am forced to just sit and watch. My preference is to watch the frolicking lambs that are very prevalent at this time of year, but occasionally a little old couple will board the train and take my heart and attention. Today, as I was traveling between Birmingham and Bristol, a couple of about seventy boarded in Cheltenham Spa. They sat across the aisle from me, both seated on the same side of the table. They seemed normal, until the man handed his wife a small black backpack.

This backpack seemed to be Mary Poppins’ version of a travel bag; it was the kind of stylish yet practical accessory that screams “I’M USEFUL AND MATCH NEARLY ALL OF YOUR OUTFITS!!!” From this bag came two plastic coffee mugs with a pink flower/blue checkerboard pattern that clearly announced that the man had no hand in their purchase. In the bottom of each of these cups was a small sandwich bag filled with on teaspoon of instant coffee and then carefully tied. As the husband carefully emptied the contents of his too-big-for-what-it-contained bag into his coffee cup (an event that took nearly two minutes and required the assistance of his wife), the woman removed two sandwiches from the black bag, placing them in front of them on the table.

Once the instant coffee was emptied into the cups, patiently waiting for its transformation from a solid to a liquid, the black-bag-of-fabulousness revealed a giant thermos of steaming water. The only thing missing was milk for the coffee. “I guess they drink their coffee black.” I began thinking to myself, but before the though finished its journey through my mind, a tiny plastic bottle of milk was extracted from the magic bag. “Hot and cold in one bag? Now that is versatile.” I thought to myself.

But there was one last item that was needed to make the train picnic complete: two teaspoons, one for each of the adorable little old people. The spoons were removed from the bag, stirred briefly to combine the ingredients, tapped on the edge of the cup and replaced in the bag of wonder.

I truly believe the couple has done this many times before, and had timed everything out perfectly. As soon as they finished their meal, all the remaining residue was quickly swept back into the black-bag-of-stylish-organization in time for their stop, never to be seen by my eyes again.

What wonders await me on my next trip?

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