Railway stereotyping

Sep 26th, 2008 | By | Category: Ireland

Checking in online for Ryanair flights to Bristol and back next Monday, it was hard to imagine the way it used to be.  Air travel was out of the question for ordinary people and train fares were a week’s wages;  to travel from Northern Ireland to Somerset in 1986 on the slow and dirty British Rail trains from Stranraer cost £58 and took all day.  The Ryanair return fare for Monday, booked at only a few days’ notice was €90.91 – about £72.  Michael O’Leary has made my life better!

The only loss has been the odd experiences that train travel sometimes brought.

There was an evening crossing on the elderly Sealink ferries from Larne that connected with a train that travelled south through the night.  This wasn’t a sleeper, it was ordinary carriages.  People would make themselves as comfortable as they could;  some would bring their own food and their own tea in flasks.

The train one night in late September 1982 was sparsely-filled.  Sitting across from my twenty-one year old fiancee, there was an unspoken wish that the carriage would remain mostly empty.  The dread was that a group of lager drinkers would decide to sit nearby, shouting and cursing through the night.

Across the aisle, a man in his late 20s with a little girl aged five or six came and sat in the seats.  Rough in appearance, he seemed to have no baggage.  It seemed strange for anyone to make such a journey through the night with a young child.  Perhaps a woman would join them.

As the train pulled out, it became clear that the man and the little girl were travelling alone.  The little girl sat looking out into the darkness.  There was hardly a word between them.

Herself nodded towards them and grimaced.  “Strange”, she whispered.

Scrutinising the man more closely, he did look tough, and to look tough in the Northern Ireland of 1982 demanded particular quality.  He didn’t look as though he was much accustomed to travelling with a young child on a night train – he had brought nothing by way of food or drink.

The train rattled through southern Scotland and the little girl became tired.

“Do you want to go to sleep?” He asked in a broad Belfast accent.  The little girl nodded and stretched out on the seat.  He took his coat, covering her with it and tucking it into the seat behind her.  She smiled at him and closed her eyes.

He sat back in his seat and watched her until she was asleep.

Once happy she was comfortable, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small and well-thumbed Bible.  He stretched out in his seat and began to read with great attentiveness.  The appearance of the tough, paramilitary type melted away as he turned the pages.

Air travel is fine, but you don’t often meet the unexpected.

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