A traveller's tale

I'VE been travelling quite a bit lately by train, something I last did regularly about 25 years ago. I've found it quite enjoyable, and rather instructive.

I'VE been travelling quite a bit lately by train, something I last did regularly about 25 years ago. I've found it quite enjoyable, and rather instructive.

It's a bit like watching children grow up. Seeing your own every day, you don't really notice how they change; but meet someone's else kids after a gap of months or years, and you're instantly struck by how different they've become.

One of the most striking things I've noticed about the railways is actually how little has altered - despite privatisation and a few changes of operator and livery since.

The seats are perhaps a little more plastic-seeming, the leg-room between them perhaps a little less. Your ticket is checked a little less often on journeys between Ipswich and London (often not at all).

Some of the conductors on 'one' trains make their announcements in an incomprehensible estuary gabble that would have been unacceptable in British Rail days.

The choice of refreshments and other purchasing opportunities on the main stations is wider and more brazen.But by far the biggest changes have taken place not in the rail services themselves, but in the passengers.

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As I remember it, travelling by train was a social experience.

You met some interesting people - as well as some boring ones. On at least a couple of occasions I've formed friendships on trains that lasted beyond the journey's end.

It's hard to imagine that happening now, because no one on the train speaks to anyone else - at least not to anyone who is actually on the train with them.

Technology has changed the way we interact with one another. That's not just true on the railways, of course, but the confined unit of the train brings it into focus.

The other day I spent an hour and a bit in the company of three other blokes. At least, physically I was in their company.

In that time, not one word was exchanged between any of the four of us.

Next to me was a young man who spent almost the whole time engaged in a series of inconsequential discussions with various people on his mobile phone.

About the most vital piece of information he disclosed was this: “If you were looking out of your window a minute ago you might have seen the train I was on.”

How astonishing it would have seemed 25 years ago that so much technology and expense could have gone into the sending of such a pointless message.

Opposite me, sharing my leg-space, was a chap so intimately plugged in to his mp3 player that his eyes were soon closed and his lips visibly moving. Long before we reached Suffolk, he had so far lost touch with his surroundings that he was audibly singing along to whatever tunes he was listening to.

None of which behaviour raised an eyebrow of the fellow next to him, who was occupied throughout by his own palmtop computer - whether in work or play, I couldn't tell.

I, meanwhile, was happy with my distinctly old-tech entertainment of reading a book. Which is exactly how I used to pass my time on trains in the 1970s - when people weren't trying to talk to me.

THERE has been much talk lately about choice within the NHS.

Having got used to the idea of choosing schools for our children, we are expected to choose which hospital to go to for treatment.

This “consumer” choice among public services is central to government thinking. It's an idea they have swallowed whole from Margaret Thatcher.

It might be superficially attractive, but is it really such a good thing?

In order to make a good choice, you need a lot of information. But how do you get that information, and how do you absorb it well enough to ensure you make the right choice?

It sounds to me like a recipe for stress. In fact, the onus on us all to make constant choices has been identified as a major cause of stress and anxiety in our lives.

Seems to me we could learn something from the chaotic state of television services.

There have never been so many channels to choose from - and there's never been so little actually worth watching.

I don't want to have to choose my hospital, or my kids' school, thanks very much.

I want to be confident that the one at the end of the road is the best it can be. And that should be good enough for all of us.

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