The Myth of British Efficiency 

copyright 1998, James Waldron Design, all rights reserved 
 

10.13.98 
London, England 
N 51 deg. 30.675 min. 
W 000 deg. 10.999 min. 

Since I was a child, popular culture has led me to believe that theBritish society was somehow superior to my meager American one. Television,movies, books, radio, all of them depict the Brits, especially the professionalmen, as orderly, efficient, controlled people usually above reproach, withmanners to spare. Why then, is the British rail system such crap?

I'm confident my story has never happened to another tourist (ha!), butI'm exceptionally angry and much poorer after it's passing. 

See, London has a number of stations to depart from according to what cityyou are travelling to. Last week I went to Manchester from London's EustonStation. The train I rode went directly through the city of Leicester,where my friend Nicky Fox lives. Today I'mon a train to take her out for a pint. At last.

Seemed like a simple task, go to Euston Station, buy a ticket, come backtomorrow and get on the train. I made a special trip to Euston to buy myticket. There, the polite ticket agent explained that I could buy a reducedfare ticket to Leicester for 24 pounds ($42 US) with a three day advancedpurchase, or a normal fare of 27 pounds ($ 47.25 US) right away. Damn,kinda pricey. I chose the 27 pound one, and told him I was traveling around4:30 the next day. Fine. There's a 4:00 train. I call my friend and tellher I'm arriving at 5:23 in the evening. 

The next day the subway from my Hostel was delayed fifteen minutes andI arrived at Euston Station just before the 4:00, or so I thought. Unableto find the gate listing for Leicester I stopped in at Information. "I'msorry, that train leaves from King's Cross Station," about a ten minutewalk from Euston. Shit, maybe the ticket agent from yesterday could haveinformed me of that slight detail. 

Whatever. I dashed out the door hopped on a bus, and arrived at King'sCross station. Again, unable to locate the Leicester gate listing, I visitedyet another Ticket agent. "Well, that train leaves from St. Pancras stationacross the street at 4:30." Jesus Christ! Will no one give me correct information?I ring Nicky and explain I won't be in till 6 now. 

Fine, across the street by 4:06 and the line for the train has alreadyformed. Here I am, sweating, with a fully-loaded backpack and a day packhanging off the front of my shoulders surrounded by a horde of suit-cladbusinessmen pushing towards the conductor. Upon reaching him he curtlytells me, "This is a Super-Savers fare and is not valid on this train,the next available is at 7 o'clock." The businessmen look at me with disdain,"another low-life backpacker trying to cheat the system." Will my joy neverend?

Off I go to the fourth ticket agent in less than a day, to upgrade. I figureit will be 10 bucks or something. Nope, $43.75 US, and I can't upgradethe one peak time ticket, gotta do both ways. Call Nicky again to explain,won't be able to make it till 8:30, wanna call it off? "Maybe you can changetheir minds," she offers. OK, I'd try.

Back to the ticket agent. Explain my story. He's listening, but I'm toget no pass. If I had bought the ticket at his office they would have informedme of the restrictions. But of course. I give up. I pay the upgrade figuringit's only money, I can always make more. Back on the phone to Nicky. I'mon my way, but you have to buy dinner.

London is hands down the most expensive city I've visited on my trip. Perhapsrenowned in Europe are the costs of local rail travel, and today I gotfucked by the system. My quick trip for a drink with a friend cost a totalcost of 56 pounds, or 98 US dollars, before the dinner. That's a ton ofmoney compared even to my hometown New York. You could, in fact travelfrom New York five hours to Washington DC, and back for around 70 dollars.Leicester is one hour and thirty minutes from London. That would cost 24dollars return, during rush hour back home. Who woulda thought I couldfind New York a bargain at anything?

And where, during all this commuting madness, was the orderly, calm, intelligent,frugal Brit I'd come to expect? Maybe he turned into the pierced, tattooeddad with the screaming, misbehaved child sitting next to me and makingthis trip one of the most memorable on my year-long journey.
 

 

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© (1998) James Waldron Design -- Waldron@interport.net