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Sunday, 2 September 2007

Close Encounters of The TransPennine Kind

Firstly, I should explain the phrase "TransPennine". The Pennines are the spine of Northern England, a range of gentle hills running North to South that almost exactly divide England. Transpennine Express largely operate trains that run east to west, coast to coast along the latitude approximately shared by the diverse peoples of Hull, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool, with towns like York, Doncaster, Warrington, Widnes, Macclesfield as branch stops,. The routes that the 730 Turbobooster serve are trade routes two thousand years old, fish and European imports from Hull, Irish immigrants and American dollars from Liverpool, sheep and cattle drovers between market towns along the way.

Nowadays, these historic routes are still busy with commuters between towns, holidaymakers heading for Manchester International, sightseers and a more recent phenomenon - retail village bargain hunters. The corridor served is about 30 miles wide and 120 miles long, with a total population, or potential passenger base, of about 7 - 10 million people. To give some sort of perspective to Canadians, this is a smaller landmass than the stretch of Nova Scotia from Port Hawkesbury, Cape Breton, to Halifax with the sea shores in between as northern and southern boundaries. Of course, the population would have to be increased by a factor of about 20 and would have to be much more ethnically diverse, and the Sydney tar ponds (yes, I know they are not within the boundaries I have described but pretend they have been plonked into the middle of this area) would have to be re-classified as wildlife sanctuaries, but hopefully the picture painted can be imagined. This is a busy place.

Which is why, when Transpennine Express chose to reduce the number of coaches (by half) on the peak time 7.33am 730 class Turbobooster from Hull to Manchester Victoria, (calling at Brough, Selby, Leeds and Huddersfield), there are problems caused by the resultant overcrowding. And when TransPennine Express choose to do this frequently, human commuters begin to equip themselves, in advance, with strategies and worse-case-scenario plans anticipating the fact that their working day is about to commence with a journey that closely resembles the end-of-life experience of Dussumieria Acuta, or more commonly, the humble sardine.

Of late, my trusty Fuji Crosstowner has become the focus of approbation among some commuters who regularly join the train at Selby, even though my bike would lustily dispute it's responsibility for the overcrowding, a negative claim which would receive my full support. Commuters are a strange breed, creatures of custom. A common perception is that the annual migration of birds, or even wildebeest is mindless and unchanging, driven by instinct and environment, but the unswerving habits of commuters make these natural spectacles look like whims. At station platforms everywhere, regular commuters arrive at the same time, take their habitual place on the platform with millimetre accuracy and thus daily, when the 7.33 from Hull arrives, tend to get on the same coach, in the same order and sit in the same seats.

This pattern is exacerbated by the English mania for orderly queuing, which only means that Joan, working for Accounts Receivables in Thompson and Thompson, St Peter's Place, Leeds is fully expecting not to get her usual seat when for the fourth day in a row the train arrives sans two carriages. She is also, by now, fully expecting to see the Fuji Crosstowner comfortably nestled in its assigned storage space, a berth only achieved at the cost of folding up one of the three "multi-use" seats on the train. Additionally she has again just witnessed "her" seat occupied by Jim, who usually gets on the train two places in front of her.

Joan has been quietly fuming about these outrages for four days now and has a speech prepared. But she needs an opening to use the speech. This is provided by Dave and Trev, suited and booted salesmen who also regularly join carriage "C" at Selby. Dave and Trev are typically young male Yorkshire - blunt and assertive, with soccer fan arrogance - and have evidently agreed a plan of action in case the two carriage scenario repeats. When it does, Dave acts. He boards the train, walks straight to the multi-use seat, which I have folded up to accomodate the Fuji's rear wheel, and he attempts to fold it back down and sit on it. Then he starts to bounce up and down on the seat, trying to get it down all as far as it will go. The seat is prevented from folding fully down because it is resting on the back wheel of the Fuji, but Dave persists, looking round the carriage defiantly, and grinning at Trev.

The part of me that is English immediately wants to apologize, but the militant cyclist in me goes for stronger language, "Excuse me, can you watch the bike please". Dave looks at me, garbed in my cycling apparel, and says" This your bike, mate?". The subsequent conversation is riddled with language that totally contradicts the meaning of the exchange, but having now completed "Watching the English" by Kate Fox, I am more equipped to complete the dialogue. By saying "Yes, the back wheel is'nt designed to cope with that kind of stress", I actually mean "Stop being a frigging idiot and keep your 220lbs of brainless meat away from my property". In responding "I've paid for a seat, mate", Dave means "I'm one tough hombre and you better learn who's boss on this Turbobooster, you skinny tree hugger".

Bizarrely, this conversation is conducted across a carriage between tightly skirted bums of office girls and the brown shoes of, among others, Trev. The train is so crowded that Dave and I have to conduct our exchanges across the jiggling rumps of salesmen and young girls.
Everyone else in the carriage is pretending the conversation is not happening. Everyone apart from Joan. She squirms her way through the swaying crowd, and angrily, completely without punctuation, addresses no-one-in particular "Bikes taking up all this space, least they could is not to have seat themself[sic], dont think about no-one, its a bloody disgrace, should be disabled anyway, not that there's space for wheelchairs. They do'nt even pay for it." I am back to being English, and defensive, and only have the vaguest idea what Joan is, as they say locally, "on about". "I'm sorry, but the gentleman was trashing my bike" I feebly offer. . Joan counters "Did you pay for it?". "I paid for my ticket, yes,.." I begin. Joan interrupts "But you did'nt pay for mine, so I'll say what I bloody well want" she shouts. QED. The logic of Joan's argument is completely unanswerable, so I don't respond. I begin to try to think of a positive solution - perhaps we could let the Fuji have the seat one day, then on alternate days, I could maybe ride the sixty two miles to Leeds, possibly tailing the train.

My speculation is futile though. Joan's point, after three days of stewing in her own dissatisfaction, is apparently made, so she disappears back into the mass and Dave, satisfied that he's made his own point, stands up slowly, and leans triumphantly on the Crosstown's crossbar making the occasional barbed comment to Trev. I am left like Tennyson's "good damsel who sits apart" without a final retort. Instead, I continue my own breakfast feast, and am grateful that all of the potential 7 million customers of TransPennine Express choose not to let the train "take the strain" on the same day.

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