There is nowhere I’d rather work than on a train. Obviously, I mean an intercity service around lunchtime, with tables free, during term time so squawky children are absent, and in a quiet coach which isn’t populated by people who assume the signs refer to other people switching their phones off, not them. Those people I would cheerfully see swinging from railway bridges up and down the country.
And I’m in good company. The Public Accounts Committee has this week criticised the government’s plans for HS2 as ‘based on fragile numbers, out-of-date data and assumptions which do not reflect real life’: in other words, they have shoddy maths (perhaps a remedial course at one of Michael Gove’s academies is in order) and can’t see that time spent on a train isn’t wasted, it’s used. Not only do plenty of people work on trains, they’re more productive than they would be in the office, because no-one is interrupting them with pointless questions.
A quiet train, for me, is perfect. Writing is easier with a view whizzing past: it’s distracting enough to let your brain wander, but not so distracting that you lose focus. Obviously it can’t be a service which travels through Preston (the Bermuda triangle of signal failures, electrical faults and broken trains on the tracks ahead). At Preston, the scenery is static, sometimes for hours; and the vague fear that you might have to give up hope of getting home and simply live in Preston from now on can be dispiriting, fond as I am of the place.
I’m lucky that I’ve never had my love of trains destroyed by a regular commute — having committed my every waking hour to acquiring a job which doesn’t involve many early meetings, and only if they’re within walking distance of my home. Commuting is the evil twin of train travel: crammed into standing room, without hope of being able to reach into your bag, let alone read any of its contents or think about anything but the elbows of your fellow man. At least, you hope it’s an elbow.
Thus, I retain a simple joy in train travel, especially in muting a phone and ignoring it for a couple of hours. If it’s urgent, they can mail, if it isn’t (it never is), they can pester someone else instead. Being on a train is the perfect illustration of the theory that it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
The bad news is that the Department of Transport has already tanked £185m on consultants to provide them with the out-of-date data and unrealistic assumptions that have so annoyed the PAC. The good news is that they expect to tank another £300m before work on the new line even begins, so I’m sending them this column, and a bill for £10k.
It’s always a treat to remind yourself that not only are you common, but so are the people working on Downton Abbey. They can brandish Julian Fellowes being married to the daughter of an earl as much as they like, but it doesn’t change the fact that the programme has been committing terrible dining-table faux pas. So much so that it has vexed the Countess of Carnarvon, in whose house it the programme is filmed. I’m rounding down when I say ‘house’, obviously.
Apparently, the Countess is breathing deeply from her sal volatile because she sees basic errors in Downton’s table-setting. Firstly, they don’t have enough staff (isn’t that true for us all?). Then, she said, the ‘glasses are back to front,’ which reveals the depth of my plebitude, as I thought glasses were round, and therefore didn’t have a front or a back. How vulgar.