I really miss CFR. When a train is delayed in Bucharest there is no fuss. The delay is mentioned on the big board and that’s it. People expect it and don’t complain. Romanians are used to a dysfunctional train service and seem grateful they have one at all (I know I am). I half expect CFR to be closed down or sold off to a gang of crooks. I will miss it if that happens because I like the old trains and the eccentrics that use them; I like the crazy ladies, the fat conductors, the gypsies, the scamming kids, beggars, magazine sellers. It is a bit of old fashioned character to a modern world that is becoming featureless.
I am writing this on a British train. The “Southern Railways” train from Hove, which is next to Brighton, to London Victoria. Southern Railways is a private company and it tries to be modern and politically correct and informative; it tells passengers when there has been a delay and tries to do the right thing. It makes me sick. I miss the days when “British Railways” was like CFR: run-down, late, shabby, with workers who seemed scruffy, bad tempered and lazy workers. But it had character and was endlessly fascinating for a small boy.
I’m not so bothered by the fact that my train was delayed by half an hour or that I paid an extortionate twenty seven quid — for a one hour journey. I didn’t even mind when a disembodied voice said “this train will no longer go to Victoria Station; it will only go to East Croydon”, which is deep in the south London wilderness. CFR has taught me to be accept the unpredictable and to be grateful for any kind of forward motion.
It’s the language they use that drives me to distraction and the fact that they keep repeating the same announcements every few minutes. Some bright spark in Southern Railways must have said “this is the age of multiple TV channels and social networks. People are used to an overload of information. Let’s jump on the bandwagon!” And employees were told to repeat the same message – and I swear this is true – every minute.
Do we really need reminding – every minute – that the “delayed 1704 service for Brighton” has been cancelled because of “Vandalism”. Is this a case of blaming someone else? Do they want us to form a posse and go and punish the vandals in Worthing? And why does one vandalised train result in all other trains being late?
Most announcements are made by some smooth talking actor whose voice has been recorded in a studio and who speaks to hundreds of stations at a time. They must have told him about the vandals as there is a “blame the vandals” button they can push in the control room every minute. At Hove they have a real live rail worker (if that’s what they still call them) who then repeats the same stuff that the actor has just said, but his accent isn’t so impressive.
But he did inject one piece of new information: the vandals broke a door and the train automatically stopped. I wonder if any of them realise how vulnerable all this makes them; if one vandalised train can cause so many other trains to be delayed what would happen if there was a real problem like a bomb, an accident, a fire or a war. In the old days they would have just carried on with a shrug and a quick repair, as they do in Romania, but in the UK the whole system would grind to a halt.
Like I said, the thing that drives me mad is the language they use. They keep talking about “services” when they mean trains: the 1704 “service” to Brighton has been cancelled; the 1716 “service” to London has been delayed. When did a train become a service?
And when did a passenger become a customer? I’m not a customer. I didn’t go into a shop and choose between lots of different options for getting the train to London. There is no choice; there’s only one station, one train line and one station. What’s all this nonsense about choice?
The other annoying linguistic intrusion is the word “advised”. I miss the days when some bored and gloomy male voice would come on the speaker system and tell us the bad news. This is how it still is in Romania and I love the honesty of the system: no fake pretence at being cheerful, as if their positiveness is going to make you feel better about being delayed. They don’t pretend that they appreciate your presence in their station. No fake smiles on CFR.
On Southern Railways they preface every announcement with the word “advised”, so “customers are advised that the train to London Victoria will no longer be coming into Platform 2. It will come into Platform 1.” And instead of telling us there will be a delay they say “we have been advised that there will be a delay”. I wonder if the lawyers got involved and said “there is a risk we get sued for giving out wrong information? Is this a way of not claiming any responsibility for anything you say?
People in Romania seem to assume that everything in Britain is better than it is in their country and even though I constantly tell Romanians that this is not the case people don’t believe me. But here is an example of something – the railway system – where I prefer it in Romania. Admittedly, CFR does move along at a snail’s pace but if you have a book, a laptop and plenty of work to do you can get lots of things done, and get a nice sleep. The guards are gruff but friendly and I much prefer them to the creeps they hire to smile at us on Southern Railways.