Growing up in the Bronx, I learned that train = special very early. Whenever we went anywhere different when I was growing up, a train was involved. Maybe it was just the D or the 4 into Manhattan for a day trip to the museums. Maybe it was a walk down to the overpass at the end of 204th Street to watch the commuter trains run up and down the Harlem Line, or, if the four of us kids had been really good, to stand on the overpass and watch trains move around the MTA's Concourse Yard. But all of that paled to the real trains - the ones that belong to the decade-long summer vacations of childhood.
Every year, my hassled and massively overburdened parents would shepherd four kids and several massive bags to the subway, on and off the subway, and into the massive concourse of Grand Central Terminal to catch an Amtrak train up the old New York Central's famed Water Level Route, to the amazing, exotic destinations of Albany, Rochester, and Buffalo on our annual excursion to visit our grandparents. And when we got to Buffalo, and out to the cottage on Lake Erie, there would be long days sitting outside watching the trains and counting the cars - several trains an hour - along the double-track Conrail mainline.
The romance faded, of course. The summers got shorter. The mixed freights and cabooses were replaced by endless strings of intermodal containers with end-of-train devices at the rear. And I got older, and the fascination of trains was overtaken by a fascination with girls (occasionally at the expense of watching what was in front of me when I was on my bike).
But that was enough to leave me with warm memories. So when we learned that we were moving to Andover this year, I took a look and saw that Andover is just over an hour by train from London, I considered that almost a bonus. My British friends might make complaining about rail a national pastime, but I just laughed. Regular service to almost anywhere in the country you might want to go? Multiple trains per hour to many, many destinations? Rail connections to the Continent? They didn't know how good they had it.
And when we arrived, the first several journeys confirmed that for me. There were a couple of minor issues, but they seemed unimportant, particularly while I sat at the window, and watched the English countryside roll by. I sat and read, enjoyed my commute, even got to know the difference between the Class 159s I ride and the 450s and 455s that haul closer-in commuters on the suburban routes, and the 444s that run on the electrified long distance routes. The romance was alive and well.
Yet I now find that I spend at least as much time bitching and moaning about the service as any Brit I know. I routinely get off the train feeling much more miserable than I was when I got on, whether it's morning or night. I thoroughly dislike my commute.
Over the next few days or weeks, I'm going to explore how that happened, and try to figure out what went so wrong. A bit of it is the result of natural causes - of reality not living up to the standard set by memory - but most of it isn't. Some of it will be down to failures of the company that operates the trains (the Stagecoach Group, which runs the South West Trains franchise). Other problems result from the system that gives the franchisee so little control over things that matter to the commute, and still more from privatization itself.
I'll talk about the privatization first, in the next post.