Tuesday, 31 August 2010

A National Let Down

It's 9pm, dark and the reading lights aren't working. In front of me two ladies loudly cackle after one of them screeches the odd lyric or tune from the head-phoned music they listen to. My own head is throbbing and my nose is sore from the constant blowing my cold demands. Having held a mobile phone screen to the newspaper I am attempting to read for the past two hours while cursing the lack of lighting, I'm attempting to get some sleep but the tuneless wailing sporadically continues and the kid across the aisle decides to play music from a mobile phone that reminds me of the accompaniment to a 90s' Nintendo game or a keyboard demo that seems to be on repeat. I am sure the sound of me fog-horning is grating on some nerves but if I am to breath, the noise is an unfortunate and painful necessity.

Up until now, I have generally been quite lucky with National Express journeys – aside from the one journey when we drove with a loud ear-splitting beeping noise for several hours before the driver finally announced we could no longer continue. After pulling into a service station and waiting for a mechanic for nearly an hour, our coach was deemed unroadworthy and we had to wait another half an hour for a coach with space to stop off and pick us up before being transferred onto yet another coach and taken to Leeds by a driver who had no idea where the coach station was and spent 20 minutes driving around Clarence Dock when we were already pretty annoyingly delayed. On that occasion I am thankful I wasn't hung-over or suffering from a headache!

I did my last NCTJ exams back in February and since then have been pretty jammy for the past seven months, still having a student card until September and as a result managing to get a Young Person's Railcard also until then. Unfortunately my time is up soon which will be pretty devastating as I seem to be doing some sort of long-distance haul virtually every weekend. Occasionally, despite the dramatic rail discounts I get, trains are still far too expensive and I find myself braving a four-five hour journey courtesy of National Express.

I have always been good at occupying myself and am lucky enough to be able to read without feeling sick while travelling. I know many people prefer listening to music, sleeping, day dreaming or staring out of the window but I view travel time as a chance to either finally catch-up on the news or progress further in my current read. During my year out I remember being annoyed on a few occasions during long night journeys that left in the early evening but failed to provide any form of individual down-lighting so passengers could read. I am not one for going to bed at seven when some of these coaches left so the prospect of hours spent in darkness didn't please me. On the few occasions this occurred, I was generally saved by the torch I always carried and the fact that we were travelling through much poorer countries easily excused this.

Despite many of these countries being much poorer than Blighty their transport was generally far more luxurious than National Express. Most journeys included film showings and some even provided a meal (sometimes three courses and hot!) and/or a pillow and blanket. Around South American countries different seat classes were available – Classico, Semi-Cama and Cama. Classico is the kind National Express offer, Semi-Cama are a regular reclining seat with the addition of a mechanism kind of resembling a foot-stool and Cama are virtually fully reclining beds and meals often came with whisky. In certain Asian countries coaches were filled with exceedingly short partially reclined bunk beds with troughs to put feet in and blankets supplied. Travelling on these buses involved removing footwear on entering the bus and were a rather surreal experience.

National Express and Mega Bus are pretty much the cheapest way to travel around the UK and if booked in advance almost match coaches I experienced around the world in price, but certainly not in quality or distance for your money. Arguably shorter travel times around the UK justify the lack of on-board entertainment but even some four hour journeys while travelling came with filmage. Trains in China provided a similar kind of class system as those in South America but as Laowai (foreigners) we were often the onboard entertainment, although I do remember a service offered allowing for the rental of laptops and films by the hour. The lowest class of Chinese train is “hard seat” and is as the name suggests – plastic moulded seats covered in a thin deceptively comfortable looking layer of material. From there, classes moved up to slightly padded and reclining “soft seats” to carriages of sets of six bunk beds with three facing another three (like the Indian “Sleepers”) and private doored cabins of four bunks.

Unfortunately, our transport system isn't so advanced or variable and trains are so expensive that without a railcard and an extremely well-planned diary, for me they will soon be unaffordable. Preempting future costs I report with dread that I've already got my next date with National Express - bring on the potpourri of human smells, wailing children and adults, dim-witted drivers stopping far too frequently, faulty coaches, inconsiderate passengers, stuffiness, stinky toilets, cramped conditions and solitary hours of boredom spent fretting in the darkness.

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