The French TGV is truly a wonder of the modern world: slick, streamlined, punctual, reasonably clean and fast. It is not called a 'train à grande vitesse' for nothing. This weekend's trip to Normandy by train was so far removed from my last experience of trains in the UK as to be a civilisation apart.
France first: the pointy nosed - and pointy tailed - TGV (they do look like they are kissing when coupled) left from scheduled platform at exactly the scheduled time. It was full and the Frenchman had been given a seat in front of La Fille and I because we had booked late, but the seats were clean and the middle armrest came up so La Fille could stretch out and sleep. You could have eaten your lunch off the drop-down table. So we did. When the train was about to stop we were clearly and audibly told the name of the station as well as the length of time, in minutes, we would be stopped. There was plenty of luggage space. It was tranquil enough to read and what a blessed relief to be no wiser about our fellow travelers when we got off the train 90 minutes later than we had been when we boarded it. A couple of people took mobile phone calls but whispered and kept them short. Others appeared to have heeded the signs asking for phones to be silenced. Conversations between passengers were discreet. And, and, and...the train arrived on time.
Britain: La Fille and I took a train recently to East Anglia. At the ticket office I asked when the train would be leaving and from which platform. On arriving at the designated platform not two minutes later I found, contrary to what I'd been told, there were no trains leaving. Not one. Services on the first part of the line had been replaced by buses. We jumped on a bus about to leave. It smelled of sick. We arrived at the station part-way in the rain. Just as the bus pulled in the train pulled out. Station staff could not say when the next one would leave. Questions were met with ignorance and indifference. An hour later a train arrived and we were advised to change further up the line. The carriage was British Rail rolling stock, which shows how old it was. There was litter on the floor, the tables were filthy with encrusted food and drink stains. We changed trains. It was the same: the seats were so claggy with God knows what I told La Fille to try to keep her hands off them. (I know, a little dirt never hurt anyone but this was something else). I discovered when I stood up that my seat was covered with short white dog hair that had attached itself to my clothes. Several passengers made and received calls and openly chatted about their private lives in gruesome detail. The guy sitting behind made several calls in which he swore every other word. La Fille asked why he was so angry. When we finally arrived I couldn't open the train door because I couldn't lean out of the window far enough. Our 90 minute journey took more than three hours.
These are not lucky/unlucky one-off experiences. It may not always be so exceptionally good/bad, but this is the general pattern.
Earlier this week members of an anarchist group were arrested and accused of trying to sabotage TGV lines with blocks of concrete. From the news reports I discovered the TGV's pointy nose is not just for attracting other trains, but is designed to absorb much of the impact in a crash and even push aside obstacles on the track. That is why a French anarchist might want to damage or cause chaos on France's TGV network: a British anarchist, if such a person exists, would surely think: Why bother.