Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/On the rail - Part 2

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Part 1



Besides those cardinal defects of our railroad system, on which I have already[1] recorded my dissatisfaction, there are scores of others not less annoying, though perhaps less serious. “Les petites misères de la vie en chemin-de-fer,” would form an appropriate title for such a work as I should like to see written. Railway annoyances do not belong to the order of troubles that are soon forgotten. On the contrary, the traveller has time to brood over them to his heart’s content or discontent, as he is jolted along mile after mile and hour after hour. For my own part, I do not consider railway journeying to be conducive to pleasing reflections. As long as you can look out on the passing scenery, well and good; as long as you can sleep, well and better; but, if the prospect from the windows is dull and dreary, or if it is too dark to see anything, and if you cannot sleep, then I fancy most persons’ reflections on a solitary journey are not peculiarly lively ones. The swaying to and fro of the carriage produces that feeling of heaviness which, as every seafaring traveller knows, is the first step in the downward path towards nausea. Thus the mind is apt to brood over the discomforts of one’s position. During a long series of such after-dark journeyings, when I was too tired to read and too wide awake to sleep, I have pondered sadly over the short-comings of our railroad management and some few results of these ponderings I wish now to convey to others.

In the first place then, according to the custom of reformers, let me name my own particular personal grievance. If the tyrant Gessler had placed the apple on the head of Master Schmidt or Meyer instead of on that of young Tell, very likely the Swiss revolution would never have taken place. In the same way, to compare small things with great, if our railway companies had not systematically refused to provide for my individual comfort, I should not perhaps have been tempted to launch these censures on their devoted heads. As the St. Albans potwhalloper said, I am not venal, but I am accessible to persuasion; and supposing I had no personal cause of complaint, my sense of the public wrongs might not be as vivid as it is. This I own in justice to abstract truth; yet at the same time, I feel some satisfaction in knowing that my own wrongs are also those of a large portion of the public. To tell the truth, I am addicted to smoking. This may, as a fashionable ladies’ doctor once said to me, be a nasty habit, an expensive habit, and a degrading habit. About that I say nothing. I only aver that in company with nine railway travellers of the male sex out of ten, I do like a cigar while I am travelling; and, what is more, I indulge my liking. If I had a penchant for picking pockets or for slashing cushions with a pen-knife, I could hardly be treated with greater severity. I have to indulge my taste slily, surreptitiously, and ignobly. I look out for empty carriages. I give bribes to officials, who are at once offensively servile and insultingly familiar. I am liable at any moment to be insulted, committed and fined. I am pained by the consciousness that the carriage, when I leave it, will smell unpleasantly of stale tobacco, and that the next occupant may be a lady, to whom the odour is really unpleasant; and, in fact, I am kept in a state of equal discomfort whether I smoke or do not smoke. And these penalties are inflicted on me simply and solely because I do what I am allowed to do in every other place that I frequent. No doubt there is a difference on our various lines. The Great Northern, for instance, inclines to stern severity with respect to smokers; the Great Eastern is lax to a degree hardly consistent with dignity; the North Western is accessible to reason in the person of its officials; the South Western is capricious in its policy; while the South Eastern line is positively Draconian in its antipathy to smoking, and, not content with fining detected offenders, actually gibbets them for weeks afterwards by affixing their names, occupations, and punishments on the walls of its stations—an excess of cruelty which I doubt being justified either by humanity or law. Still one and all these companies treat smoking as an offence to be dealt with more or less severely and arbitrarily. The whole of this sort of guerilla warfare between guards and passengers might be superseded at once if each train had a smoking-carriage attached to it. Supposing this were done, I would have no mercy on persons who smoked in prohibited places. Till it be done, passengers will break the law, guards will be bribed to wink at an infraction of their duty, and non-smoking wayfarers will be subjected to the annoyance of travelling in carriages redolent of stale tobacco. We always boast of being the freest country in the world, but there is no country except England where the public would submit to such an interference with their tastes and habits as is daily practised upon our great smoking community in its journeyings by rail. I shall never forget the glow of satisfaction I experienced when I first saw written on a compartment in a German train, “Hier darf nicht geraucht werden.” Here at last smoking was the rule, and abstention from tobacco was regarded as an eccentricity. A negro who came into a country where a white skin was considered a sign of inferiority could hardly entertain a more vivid sense of pride than I did at that moment.

I also want to know the reason why our trains are notorious for their want of punctuality. Time is of more value in Great Britain than it was ever known to be in any portion of the globe, or at any period of the world’s history. Punctuality is claimed, with some reason, to be an emphatically British virtue. And certainly, as far as your social position goes, you had better break all the ten commandments than fail to keep an appointment. French, or German, or Italian travellers can better afford to be an hour behind time than we can five minutes. Yet there is no reliance to be placed on an ordinary British train performing its journey in the time stipulated. You would suppose, beforehand, that the time required to perform a known distance at a given speed might be calculated with absolute accuracy. Such, however, is not the case in practice. I have travelled across France, from Marseilles to Calais, a distance of some eight hundred miles, without ever being more than a minute behind or before our time at any station. If any English traveller can say the same about a journey from London to Aberdeen, he has been much more fortunate in his experiences than it has fallen to my lot to be. On many, if not all, of the French lines there is a system in vogue which very nearly ensures punctuality. Whenever a train is exact to its time between station and station, the drivers receive an additional gratuity of a centime for every kilometre run over. To the companies the extra cost is unimportant compared with the saving gained in many respects by the additional regularity thus acquired. If any body examines the statistics of railway accidents, he will find that in nine cases out of ten the catastrophe has occurred owing to some uncertainty about the time when a train would arrive. On one of our London lines, by which of late I have been in the habit of travelling almost daily, the trains are always from five to fifteen minutes behind their time. In consequence, the railway officials must have grown to regard this delay as a normal circumstance; and, some day or other, the reliance on these minutes of grace will lead to an accident. As far as I can learn, a traveller has no redress for lost time. The delay of a quarter of an hour may often be a matter of incalculable importance; yet the railroads cannot be called upon to give compensation for the losses accruing from their own unpunctuality. In the days when railways were novelties in Italy, a train stopping at a station on the Modena line, delayed there, from some cause or other, for upwards of an hour. The passengers could put up with the despotism of Francis V., of evil memory, but they could not stand the tyranny of a railway official. So they sallied en masse from the train, and smashed the windows of the station-master’s house, a proceeding which, though illogical, produced the desired effect, and caused the train to be sent on at once. I have no wish to see English passengers take the law into their own hands, but I do think the government might protect us. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is said to be at his wit’s end to devise new taxes. Why are not our railway companies obliged to pay a fine to the Treasury every time one of their trains is late? If such a tax were productive, nobody would complain; if it were unproductive, the public would be the gainer. Let it be understood that I have no desire to compel our railways to travel faster; on the contrary, I think that already they travel too fast for their own pockets, if not for the safety of their passengers. All I want is that they should allow time enough to be able to perform their contracts. If I know beforehand at what time a train will arrive, I can make my arrangements accordingly. But I have a cause of complaint when I take my ticket on the understanding that I am to be delivered at a given spot at a certain time, and the contract is not fulfilled.

Then I also want to know, why I am starved upon my journeys whenever I travel in England? I always get hungry in travelling: and even if I am not hungry, eating promotes sleep, and I fancy a desire to sleep as much as possible while travelling by rail, is one very generally entertained by passengers. But yet how am I or my fellow passengers to gratify this natural and innocent taste? It seems to me, that within my memory, railway refreshments have fallen off. I can recall the fact, that when, as a child, I used to be taken along the London and Birmingham line, the Wolverton buffet appeared to me to afford a repast worthy of the Arabian Nights. The ghost of many an Olla Podrida of buns and coffee, and sandwiches, and pork-pies, and lemonade, rises before my memory as I write these lines. Everything, as I remember it, was excellent. It is, of course, possible that my youthful appetite was somewhat indiscriminating. I confess that the poky little room at Wolverton lives in my recollection as a vast and spacious saloon; that the greasy, oilcloth-coloured counter, appears to me in other days to have been surmounted with slabs of dazzling white marble, and that the rather dowdy damsels who now administer at the station to the wants of the hungry public, have succeeded to the place of enchanting Hebes—nearly as charming in boyish eyes as the buns they handed to you. I acknowledge, further, that but the other day, I saw two schoolboys coming home for the holidays purchase and devour eight stale buns, six flabby sponge cakes, and four pork-pies of venerable and portentous antiquity. And therefore, it is possible that my recollections of the past glories of Wolverton may be tinged with the roseate hues of a youthful imagination. Still, I know that at no period of my life did I ever consider the refreshments provided at Swindon anything but nauseous, and I hope, for the credit of my digestion, I never could have delighted in such a “menu” as that offered to the traveller at most of our English “buffets.” Your choice lies between mutton pasties—in which there is very little meat, and what there is, is gristle,—fly-eaten Bath buns with the sugar rubbed off by long friction, mouldy biscuits, and sandwiches, which stick in your throat, if you try to eat them.

The beverages are even worse. Coffee, with a rich sediment of grits; tea, without any flavour except that of chopped hay; frothy beer, and fiery brandy, are the staple articles of consumption. Even at the few stations where dinners are professedly provided, the passenger is very little better off. Supposing the dinner is tolerable in itself, which it rarely is, it is always arranged after the English fashion, the first element for whose enjoyment is time. Now, the guests of an American hotel in the far West would be ashamed to devour a dinner in the time that our railway passengers are expected to consume theirs in. Any man who can eat several slices of under-done meat, a lump of heavy pudding, and a pound of bread and cheese, in five minutes, without feeling the worse for it afterwards, must be possessed of more than mortal powers of digestion. The consequence of this state of things is, that people eat less and less at our English refreshment rooms. I am told that we travel so quickly, and our distances are so short, that there is no demand for refreshments on the road. It may be so: but the journey from London to Liverpool or Manchester is about as long in time, as that from Boulogne to Paris: yet, the buffet at Amiens does an enormous business; and I always perceive that our fellow-countrymen are the first to avail themselves of its hospitality. But then, at Amiens, you can dine, as well as feed. In fact, people would eat readily fast enough on our English lines, if they had anything given them fit to eat.

The truth is, that in this, as in many other matters on which I might dilate, if I thought the reader would not be tired of my grumblings, our railway companies suffer by want of perception of their real interests. The chief duty, no doubt, of a railroad is to convey its passengers as rapidly as may be to their destination; but then, this is not the whole of its duty. After all, a railway journey is a slice out of one’s existence, and we have a right to ask that it should be made as pleasant as possible. If travelling were more comfortable, there would be more travellers. On our main lines, competition secures decent treatment for a traveller. But on the branch ones, where there is no choice of route, the sole object of our companies seems to be to get as much out of the traveller, and to give him as little, as possible. A wiser and more liberal policy would do much, I think, to swell the scanty receipts of our great purveyors of locomotion.

E. D.

  1. See p. 336.