Joeblade

Notes on a train

A recent trip to Oxfordshire let me try out the recently-refurbished ‘GWR’ trains, introduced after First Great Western rebranded to their historical title of Great Western Railways, a rebrand so exhaustive they’ve designed their new trains for 19th century body shapes.

I’m sure that travellers from 1838 would have been perfectly comfortable, but for the 21st century traveller the seats were so close to each other that even I, sized more towards the Hobbit end of the spectrum, was obliged to spread my legs into the next seat like one of those tragic types who pretend they need to spread out so there’s room for their tremendous, oversized testicles. The seat in front of mine was so close to me that the flip-down tray in the back would have cut into my sternum, if the flip-down tray in the back had existed, which it didn’t. A fellow traveller was gamely trying to use his laptop by wedging it between the seat in front of him and his own chest, tapping away at the keys like he had the arms of a Tyrannosaurus.

There may have been marginally more seats than you might see on an older train but there were also only three carriages, and the compulsion to sprawl outwards in search of leg room meant the carriage felt full without actually being so. Some of the six-seat areas did come with a table, if ‘table’ is the right word for a melamine shelf roughly the size and shape of a Dairylea Triangle and suitable for nothing but discarded coffee cups.

Adding to my suspicion that blueprints for the whole carriage, seats and all, were scaled down in Photoshop by about 16% before being sent to manufacture, the headrests were correspondingly low, so low that they’re effectively shoulder-rests instead. When I looked up, despite being short enough to be barred from most fairground rides, I found myself looking straight into the eyes of other passengers, all peering anxiously over their seats like commuting meerkats. It became a weird, awkward game, where everyone was trying to find somewhere to gaze without making eye contact with a stranger.

The employee with the drinks and snacks trolley seemed anachronistic, here only because of a strong trade union influence. The trolley itself now barely fits through the aisle and doors, and those who wanted drinks and snacks brought their own. Everyone tucked their feet and knees in and let him pass without comment, as if he wasn’t so much selling as panhandling. When he left through the doors at the end of the carriage, I found the doors alerted people to their openness with a minute-long clicking sound, a staccato annoyance not unlike the sound of a Disney hyena laughing. Maybe it’s an accessibility measure to alert the differently-sighted to the fact that there’s an angry doorway ahead, maybe it’s something broken. Impossible to tell.

Sun poured in through un-tinted windows, and there were no blinds or curtains, so I ended my journey with a face half-sunburnt, like cheap Roy Neary cosplay. The train got me to where I was going on time, so at least there’s that.

By Paul Haine, in