Thursday, January 25, 2007

On the Wrong Lines

It snowed here yesterday. So what? I hear you say. Well, it’s an increasingly common phenomenon in this part of the world in recent years and enables Meteo France to use up some of their orange markers to indicate ‘vigilance.’ And, although we are not fully equipped for the stuff, it poses only a minor inconvenience. It came as something of a surprise to the daffodils that had unwisely stuck their heads out of the ground in anticipation of an early spring, obviously they had been reading all about this global warming stuff, but they were not nearly as surprised as were the staff of the British Rail system who expressed shock and horror that it had actually snowed in the British Isles.

I can only assume that these staff members had recently arrived from some sub-tropical region since, although it’s been many years since I spent time in the UK, if my memory serves me correctly, it snows every year.

Perhaps they should be given a quick course in the meteorological history of the British Isles, to include that other hazard to rail services there, the regrettable fact that trees in the autumn thoughtlessly chuck their leaves all over the tracks.

A spokesman for the company that is supposed to take care of the lines, explained that, not only was it the wrong sort of snow for them, but that it was ‘extreme weather conditions’ that were causing the problems. Well I thought that ‘extreme weather conditions’ were what caused the system to grind to a halt when I was there last week so I suppose there are all sorts of ‘extreme weather conditions’ that are a hazard to rail travel.

It seems that yesterday’s included a whopping 2 cms. of snow, a statistic that nearly made the station master of Nizhnevartovsk die laughing, as the trans-Siberian express went through his station at full speed. And Isambard Kingdom Brunel just rolled over in his grave.

The description of the Home Office as not being fit for the purpose seems an apt description for the management of the rail system in the UK. Of course, it might help if the one’s that ran the railways had some control over the rails they have to run on – giving them, so to speak, a vested interest in the business. As it is, the blame can be shuffled endlessly between those with the wheels and those with the tracks, the sort of game beloved of governments who could now get rid of a lot of public money by instituting an enquiry into the business, which, by 2009 or so, could then issue a report to say that the problems were due to ‘extreme weather conditions.’

This morning the English newspapers were full of the problem and asked that perennial question, why can’t the railways cope? (they may as well leave this in standing type as it gets repeated every year).

As I said, snow in my part of the world is a recent and fairly novel event – but it does not seem to have had any effect on our rail system. The TGV from Nantes to Paris ran on time and at its usual 180 m.p.h. Of course, this is largely a government body and I have a sneaking suspicion that, in the event of a failure such as an inability to cope with ‘extreme weather conditions,’ the staff are always mindful of the fact that the French are likely to take matters into their own hands, à la une révolution, resuscitate the odd guillotine and get things moving. It does act as a sort of spur, I imagine.

But it was encouraging to see that passengers on Britain’s South West railways showed some spirit the other day by printing their own fake tickets and demanding free travel on an obviously ‘not fit for the purpose’ railway.

It is a tragedy that Britain, the nation that invented the railway, seems to have gone off the rails.


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