Ghost Trains

‘Tis the season of goodwill again and with similar regularity the railways decide to interrupt their service. Ten percent of rail transport on the busiest passenger lines, even the rail line to Gatwick airport, will be removed over Christmas for repairs. Most of us think this might be the busiest time of year, but according to the railways, only a small number of the public travel at this time.

The rest of us probably realised that most people have to travel at this time of year, and do it by car, because there are so few trains and an unreliable service. But the decision by First Capital Connect (FCC), First Great Western (FGW) and Southern train companies to cut the service is either thoughtless or cruel, or both. Most people who want to travel on the day itself, or Boxing Day, are single people not deeply embedded in the warmth of a family, not fortunate enough to be invited away for days on end, to fall asleep by the fire after the Queen, surrounded by close kin, or looking forward to getting out for some shooting on Boxing Day afternoon.

People who go by train at that time of year are desperate to reach a friend, lone relation, or distant family. They have no alternative, apart from spending the festive season alone. If any hesitant person asked me for some good reasons to get married I would answer, buying a lavish dress, and Christmas. By that I mean of course, all the Christmasses to come.

According to the charity Age concern about five million people in the UK will spend Christmas alone this year. Another survey by BBC Radio 5 live, of 2,000 people, indicated that 7% of all adults and 10% of those aged over 65 expect to spend Christmas mostly on their own. Men were more likely to say they would spend Christmas alone, as were those from poorer backgrounds. A spokesman for the Campaign to End Loneliness described the findings as ‘very concerning.’

As a single woman aging fast, I’ve noticed that many widows and singletons of a certain age give up the struggle for a companionable 25th and claim that they really want to spend the day alone in their own home, watching repeats of TV presumably. I greatly admire them but like most unattached people I dread the thought of being alone at this major festival. Such a deep Yule-Angst will persuade scores of people to travel hundreds of miles to stay with other lone friends and even relations who see them as a largely unwanted spare part or an embarrassing eccentric.

Those of us who are not married still keep an ideal childhood Christmas fresh in our minds, with one major distinction; we can choose who is there with us. As independent adults we are free to have lunch or dinner with people we like, our special friends, rather than family. I think that was the ideal of all those 1960s playwrights we used to see on BBC TV. Unlike the poor saps in Alan Ayckbourn’s 1980 play, Seasons Greetings, we don’t have to bother with the bullying brother in law or the psychotic uncle.
Unfortunately like most ideals, this fantasy is unrealisable, unless all your guests have cars, and you have a lot of spare rooms. No one can just roll up by train on Christmas day and leave later. If they come from afar they have to stay a few days, which means coming early before the trains disappear, and then lingering on until public transport is resumed once again. Most people don’t want to impose on friends for that long.

The chance of Christmas cheer is easily snuffed out by many factors, and the simple problem of travelling to be with your nearest and dearest is the biggest. It was probably easier in Victorian times, if you had the price of a seat on the outside of a carriage. It is easier today in other parts of Europe. In France the trains run regularly every day of the season and Boxing Day is not a holiday there. I suspect that it is probably only in the UK that people are so affected by a disintegrating infrastructure, bloody minded workmen, and ruthless corporate thinking. The railways gift to their public is a whole years’s worth of loneliness on one day and night.

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