Sunday, 6 July 2014

Train of thought

Denis looked out of the window… and burped. Not loudly. Just enough of an expulsion of air and sound to feel satisfied. After all, what’s the use of being comfortable if you can’t be comfortable? And despite being on a train, comfortable he was. Extra wide seats, with plush velvet upholstered foot and head rests. There was an unexpected meal and drinks service, along with free WiFi and very polite staff.

Outside, the Belgian countryside whistled past at high speed in glorious sunshine, whist inside his head - by way of his iPod! - the Stereo MCs were playing one of his favourite tunes, "Ground level”.

They was on-board the Eurostar service to Amsterdam, or more precisely, they were on the second leg of the journey which was actually a Thalys TGV service to from Bruxxelles- midi to Amsterdam Centraal. With Gavin riding shotgun, he headed for a weekend in Amsterdam.

Thus far the journey had been a pleasant surprise. Through the magic of appropriate timing, He'd had been able to book ‘standard premium’ tickets for the same price as regular ones. He hadn’t expected much of a difference  - a power access point and reclining chair at best - only to find themselves sitting in what would be first class on an English train.

“English trains”, he muttered to himself out loud, with a sigh. As he did so the sun briefly disappeared behind a cloud as if the mere words could invoke doom & gloom. The service concierge who was walking through at that moment - giving out belgian chocolate coated nougat treats - looked at him quizzically

“Is Monsieur ok?”, he asked, offering the tray of sweets.

“Yes! very much so,” Denis-Jose replied, taking an offered sweet and surreptitiously palming a second as his hand moved away. “Sorry, I was just thinking out loud. I’m very, very OK!” The concierge gave him a relieved look. Almost as if he’d have had to raise an alarm if it were anything other than that.

“Enjoy the rest of your journey with us sir” he said, and continued along the aisle.

"Oh I will", he said to himself, popping the pilfered candy into his mouth "I moft thertainly mm, mmm, will..."

* * *

Living in the UK, it’s easy to forget - or even never experience - the magic and romance of train travel. I don’t mean this in a nerdy, train-spotter like way. I just mean in a comfortable, elegant, civilised way. Train travel in the UK is so expensive and poor quality, that most people see commuting and long distance travel as a chore at best and as a punishment at worst. We would fly everywhere if we could.

However, if you cross the channel onto the European mainland, it becomes a very different experience. First of all, it’s much cheaper. For example a typical 1.5 hour / 100km journey in the Netherlands, Belgium or Germany will cost you around 18 Euros. That's £15 for the standard fare, no discounts or weekend away day specials or anything. You can get em cheaper if you try. That same journey in the UK can cost as much as 3 times that amount. And you wouldn’t necessary even get a seat.

Secondly the trains are, for the most part, really clean and well maintained. You can sit down without worrying too much about what you are sitting on or in. You can use the toilet relatively safely.

Thirdly - and this is the one that’s hard to frame if you’ve never experienced it - they are punctual. I mean, really punctual. If a timetable says 13:52, you better be on that train at 13:51 or you are waiting for the next one.

Add to that frequent services going pretty much everywhere, crossing boarders without passport checks or needing to change currency and it changes the prospect of travelling around quite dramatically. It’s not just OK, it’s great!

I first started doing regular European train excursions when I was in my early 20s. In 1991, me and the chaps went on an epic journey to see Roger Waters perform The Wall at the Berlin Wall. Back then it was still a split Germany, so we had to navigate our way through East-Germany, changing trains as we went and on our way back we decided to spend a couple of days in Amsterdam. I think all of us on that trip were surprised at how easy it was (not to mention cheap, relatively speaking) and that sparked a series of frequent trips to various far away places - all by train. for me, this culminated in a grand adventure around Europe with an inter-rail card (along with Pete, Lisa and a few other randoms) in 1992. I wrote about that in a pre-blog world. I might post it one day…

I never really came back from that trip. I ended up living in Europe for a total of nearly 13 years , only returning to the UK for the occasional holiday and one ill fated business venture. It was 2005 when I finally returned back to the UK to live full time. In truth, it was nice to be home again, but what a rude awakening that turned out to be! Not just with mundane things like passenger trains but, well, everything.

I love the UK. I was born there, grew up there and still plan to spend a good portion of my twilight years there (at least until I can afford a nice place somewhere warmer). But it saddens me that most of my fellow Brits don’t really understand how much better life could be if we did some things the European way. The idea that the standard of living is better on the continent isn’t just preposterous to most… well it’s unthinkable. I don’t think the thought that our European cousins might be getting a better deal socially is even considered. Britain is stuck in the notion that getting involved with Europe or being European means losing sovereignty, identity and everything that's British.

But you only have to do on a train journey like this one to see that this is so much nonsense. We’ve been through 3 countries already - France, Belgium and The Netherlands - and each one is distinctly and discretely different from the others. There is no mistaking the different national identities.

Perhaps because they don’t have to waste time worrying about certain social aspects of life, such as healthcare, transportation, public sanitation and education, they can get on with the business of being themselves. Britain should give this a try. Worry less about being british and care more about the welfare of individuals. This European approach will probably lead us to a better Britain and give us the resource and freedom to be great again.

I’m sure there are lots of people who will disagree with me on this and point out all the problems that the European countries have right now, especially where their economies are concerned. But before you write me off completely, go on a holiday which takes you across several countries in Eurpoe in one go. By train bike, car. but not by plane. You need to see things from ground level. As the stereo MC’s said:

 “it just depends how close to ground level you are, so get on a train of thought.”