Quality Rail Service? No Thank You, I’m English

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It’s too efficient. It’s too clean. It’s too stable, too fast, too damn everything. It’s just too bloody sanitized. Where’s the romance of it? The grit, the grime and the inevitable screw-ups. The human element if you will.

When you think of technology, aside from the inevitable coveting of a new Apple toy (the latest being the iDalek), you think quite classically about the whole thing. Computers, mobile phones, great, big, enormous televisions that replace the supporting wall in your house. But ask someone to think about technology in Japan and they think of, in all likelihood, one of two things. If like me, you’re just an oversized child, robots. However, if you’re an individual who has delusions of being a ‘grown up’ then the Shinkansen aka the Bullet Train, is probably what you’ll envisage.

Photo credit: Inside Kyoto

Gleaming white and gliding effortlessly into a station at the very second it was due to arrive and leaving mere moments later. Traversing incredible distances in a few hours. Passing through cities with enough stealth and speed to rival the pink panther on his most mischievous of days. Moving so fast as to inspire musicals on roller-skates. Yes I just referenced Starlight Express and yes I’m regretting it already.

Herein lies my problem with the Shinkansen. After that, ‘holy crap this thing is fast’ moment I kind of fall out of love with the thing. A lifetime of shoddy British rail travel and crumbling buses means that I expect a certain amount of wastefulness, cock-ups and poor planning as part of the reality of any journey. In fact if I can’t complain about a journey once it’s over I hardly feel like I’ve traveled at all.

Yet, British rail for all its faults can’t compare to the sheer madness of traveling the US by Amtrak. Which is probably why, two years after I crossed the US by train with a friend, I find myself still telling stories from the journey, mostly about Jeanette.

Now Jeanette was crazy. Caring, scarily devoted to her job, but most of all crazy. With a stereotype, pitch perfect southern drawl she announced her presence to the whole train over the tannoy, ‘This is Jeanette in the lounge car, I’m here to take care of y’all.’ The lounge car was where the poverty stricken of us gathered to buy microwave foods, sweets and beer to eat in our seats as we watched those with more money and sense making their way to the restaurant car.

However, we hadn’t reckoned on Jeanette’s uncanny ability to swindle some real food from that very car to dispense to us poor, sugar high, vitamin deprived proles in the non-sleeper cars on this epic three day (note: it should have taken a little over two days but there were flood waters and break downs to contend with) cross country jaunt. She announced with cheery glee, ‘Good news y’all, I have managed to acquire four-tee-two chi-ken din-ners, that’s four-tee-two chi-ken din-ners. If you would like to reserve one of these chi-ken din-ners please come down to the lounge car to sign your name. My name is Jeanette, I’m down in the Lounge car, come on down, I will take care of you.’ What a delightful woman, if somewhat mad, we thought.

Then it happened, in some cruel twist those chicken dinners became a continual reminder of the hell of traveling by Amtrak, who it seems have a rather lax policy in regards to who gets access to the tannoy system. Twenty minutes after the initial announcement she returned to brighten our day, ‘This is Jeanette in the lounge car, I now have thir-tee-nine chi-ken din-ners, I repeat, thir-tee-nine chi-ken din-ners, my name is Jeanette, come on down to the lounge car to sign your name, this is Jeanette I will take care of you.’ It continued much the same for hours, as every twenty minutes or so elapsed Jeanette would return with her rolling commentary on the number of chicken dinners in her possession.

To our and clearly Jeanette’s horror the initial flurry of signatures would not last. The number had declined all the way down to fourteen but demand had ebbed away. We were nearly there, the home stretch in sight and the chicken blocking our path rapidly being placed in the soon to be eaten pile. While the fowl remaining were not disappearing as quickly as wished, we had hope and a determination to survive this variation on water torture. Evidently Jeanette was possessed of similar reserves.

After a brief stop at one of the many little stations we would pause at for smoking breaks and quick fix repairs to the crumbling engine she made another announcement, ‘This is Jeanette in the lounge car. Good News y’all, I have managed to acquire an extra four- teeeeeen chi-ken din-ners, I now have twen-tee-eight chi-ken din-ners. If you would like to reserve one of these chi-ken din-ners for this eve-nin, please come on down to the lounge car and sign your name. This is Jeanette in the lounge car, come on down, we will take care of you.’

Soon after, a young man by the name of Randy, who we had met earlier in our long journey, ambled over to where my friend and I sat and leaned over to whisper his question. His eyes suggested a sense of guilt, an understanding that what he was about to ask us was outside of what society deems acceptable, beyond the pale indeed.

He looked at us and muttered his opening salvo, ‘I was just wondering, when was the last time you guys ate some real food?’ Looking at the net pouch on the back of the seats in front of us, at the remains of skittle wrappers and crisp packets, we were forced to admit that real food was perhaps a distant memory now. Leaning ever closer he asked us in the whispered tones of a man looking to get his fix, ‘I was thinking about maybe goin’ to get one of those chi-ken din-ners, you wanna get some too?’

Unfortunately, if such character exists on Japanese trains I’ve yet to experience it. Much of Japanese life may seem a little mad at times, but alas they retain their sanity while traveling. Well, so long as you ignore the old guy admiring the centerfold in his porno magazine. 

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