I loved trains as a kid.
When my mum used to treat us to a visit to the London museums, we would get the train. The original Stevenage Railway Station was a 19th century brick building in the old part of the town, an archetypal period train station, with a glass panelled roof over the platform, edged with a cream painted, scalloped timber pelmet. The waiting rooms, filled with men smoking pipes and ladies wearing headscarves, were small and cosy, with wooden seating and a heavy door insulating it from the passing trains. The ticket office was fronted by a little window, behind which a jolly man in uniform politely advised on which train to get, then directed you to the right platform.
And the trains were wonderful.
A long corridor ran along the length of each carriage, with doors to small compartments for maybe six or eight passengers on two bench seats facing each other. The seats were covered with a heavily patterned, bristly fabric – comfortable whether it was hot or cold – above which were string-bottomed luggage racks.
The carriage doors to the platform were opened by putting your arm out of the window and turning the handle on the outside of the door. This was done many seconds before actually coming to a halt by seasoned train users.
Because in those days, operators did not assume that the public would open the doors and leap out while the train was still doing 40 miles per hour.
In the same way that the station toilet had a tap you turned on or off. Because they trusted that, as adults, you knew how taps worked. Just like a tap in your house. You turned it on to make the water come out. And off to stop it.
Nowadays, architects of public toilets feel we have regressed to a level of stupefying idiocy. We now apparently need a system that requires that you wave your hands under one infra-red sensor in a frustrating, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to get it to spit some soap onto your hands. After giving up on the soap, you move on to the second stage, which involves you waving your hands pointlessly about again, accompanied by much swearing, under another infra-red sensor which, after three minutes of sullen inactivity, finally relents and ejects a thimble-full of cold water onto your hands, before refusing point blank ever to do something so rash again.
Then, instead of drying your hands on a towel, you now have to poke them into a plastic contraption. The job of this product, manufactured in Malaysia by a fiercely patriotic, British multi-billionaire, who moved himself, his 7.8 billion pound fortune and his flag-waving British company to Singapore to benefit from its generous tax regime, is to blow the collected moisture and bacteria from a hundred previous hands, along with yours, up and into your face, borne on a stream of high-speed hot air.
But I got a little older, began working in London, and started to hate the train.
They were noisy, uncomfortable, unreliable and bucked about like rodeo bulls. The cosy, convivial little compartments were gone, to be replaced by cramped coach-style seats, with all the springiness and comfort of plastic garden furniture, and the kind of ambiance which forced you to spend your journey listening to yuppies yelling at painful volume into mobile phones the size and weight of house bricks, or if you were late coming home, watching drunken young men eating cheap burgers and trying not to be sick.
The trains had all the reliability of an ill-maintained, Friday afternoon manufactured Alfa Romeo. And the staff had become surly and uncaring – young men with bad skin, greasy hair, wearing uniforms made for someone ten sizes larger, and intent on providing the kind of customer service you’d expect in Soviet-era Bulgaria.
And my word was train travel expensive. I recall having to go to Manchester one day from London. I was quoted over 230 pounds. I drove instead. I used maybe twenty pounds worth of petrol, and I got to listen to Radio 4 all the way, rather than the musical selections of some kid in an Iron Maiden tee-shirt with a Walkman, or the loud discussions of two heavily hair-gelled young men, making up stories about the imaginary birds they met the night before.
Then I moved to France.
Now, I love trains again.
They are fast. They are smooth. I can drink a coffee without it splashing all over my face, or rocking all over the table and ending up in my lap.
And they are comfortable.
We got a train from Bordeaux to Angouleme recently. The rails themselves have been replaced all the way from Paris and Bordeaux and a new ultra high speed train launched – even faster than the old TGV. The trains are smooth and quiet. And fast. Really fast. These modern marvels will whisk you from Paris to Angouleme (our local town) in just 1 hour 40 minutes. That is a distance of 450 kilometres – the same as London to Carlisle – in just 1 hour 40 minutes. We can go shopping for the day in Paris. That is what a train service is supposed to be like.
The trip from Bordeaux to Angouleme on the new train takes a mere 35 minutes.
Each seat on these new trains has its own little workstation – a drop down desktop, a USB socket to charge your phone, a mains socket to charge your laptop or iPad. It has a little personal desk light, pockets to hold documents as you work. The trains have free, hi-speed wi-fi. And the seats are an executive office dream. Comfy and supportive. And they recline. But they recline within the frame of the seat, so you can pitch the seat backwards and forwards to your heart’s content, without it altering the position of your seatback for the person seated behind you.
I did not want to get off the train. It was such a nice place to be.
If you travel to France, consider the train.
For long distances, it is a revelation. And you may fall back in love with the train too.