Monday, 11 July 2011

National Rail Speed Award

Why not let the train take the strain, eh?!

To Southern Railway
Via the web

Dear Sir or Madam,

I write having reached the point of abject exasperation with attempting to use the Southern Railway service to get to work anywhere near on time.

Despite possessing more than a passing knowledge of the quirks and vagaries of the British rail infrastructure left by decades of mismanagement and under-investment, I am left wondering how it is actually possible to run a service so far removed from its published timetable.  Travelling between Clapham Junction and Redhill I cannot recall a single day over the past six months on which at least one leg of the journey has managed to depart on time.  This is quite an achievement and one surely worthy of recognition. 

For your benefit I have attached a video showing one such recent trip.  Although the section of film I have sent to you runs for a mere minute (to facilitate sending via email), I can assure you that much of last Friday's 09.19 from East Croydon was spent at this truly mind-boggling speed, apart of course from the time that was spent stationary. 

Delightful flora and fauna to be seen
I am delighted to be able to report that this was not wasted time, as I was able to carry out an in-depth study of the track side ecosystem which appears to include a great variety of plants, birds, butterflies and other insects and I was pleased to note the unmistakable signs of fox habitation as I worry about where they go when they are not foraging in bins.

Obviously, with a considerable amount of time to think, I have started to consider the possible implications, and my mind has turned to investigating the possibilities of using your service for the purposes of time travel.  One of Albert Einstein's greatest insights was realising that time is relative, meaning that it speeds up or slows down depending on how fast one thing is moving relative to something else.  He hypothesised that as we approach the speed of light, time would appear to slow down for us from the perspective of someone who (in relation to us) is not moving.  In 1971, scientists used atomic clocks to test the notion of what is referred to as 'motion time dilation'.  One clock was set up on the ground, while another was sent around the world on a jet traveling at 600mph (to put this into some perspective this is around 600 times the average speed of one of your trains).  At the start, both clocks showed exactly the same time, however when the clock flown around the world returned to the spot where the other clock was, the clock on the jet was behind the one on the ground by a few billionths of a second, demonstrating the motion time dilation theory.

I have come to ask myself whether the reverse is also true, meaning that on a Southern train - travelling close to whatever the opposite of the speed of light is - time would in fact speed up for me and upon arrival at my destination my watch would instead be ahead of that of a man who had been waiting on the platform?  Indeed, perhaps your trains can demonstrate genuine scientific merit, confounding the accepted definition of 'slow' to find a new speed in between 'slow' and 'stop' without reversing the Earth's polarity and sending the entirety of existence spinning into a paradox.  More tests are needed but I feel I could be on to something. 

It is not just physics I think about during what I like to call the morning "mush hour", there is - mercifully - time for a burst of economics too.  As I am currently working as a contractor paid by the hour, some may find it interesting to note that it takes me only four mornings on your trains to lose the same amount that I spend each week on travelling on them.  I would walk (as the video shows in many instances this could be a quicker mode of travel), however I fear I would be at risk of spending roughly the same amount on shoes and replacement soles, leaving me ultimately no better off, and possibly too weak with exhaustion once at work to be able to carry out my tasks in a satisfactory manner.  

Why good day to you, Gringo..!
It is not all negative; I must admit that I do like your comical South American travelling superhero character who invites me and my fellow passengers to "Go Loco", and sometimes like to imagine him eating nachos and shouting 'Eh Gringo' jovially at me across the platform (whilst I wait for one of your delayed trains), but I feel I must question the wisdom of a company whose primary function is public transportation using a figurehead inspired by a culture where a considerable portion of the working day is spent asleep.

I note with great interest from your web site that you have recently introduced 'regenerative braking', an innovative and commendable system which transfers electricity back into the rail system, allowing other trains to draw on that energy for power.  Given that your trains seem to spend much of their time braking you will surely soon have a surfeit and could perhaps consider selling some of it back to the National Grid to boost revenue?  Alternatively, I have recently invested in a domestic electric fan heater which, although effective during the cold winter months, does appear from my latest utility bill to be rather "high-drain" apparatus, so would also be interested myself if some is going spare.  I do not mind that it is second-hand.

I could mention continual overcrowding, pigeon infestations, surly staff (including utterly pointless rail support officers who obviously really wanted to be armed police but presumably scored poorly in the aptitude test) a considerable number of trains that smell of wee and all the other things my season ticket cash goes towards but I must now steel myself for the next loathsome journey.  On the plus side I have become something of an expert on the points and signalling configuration at East Croydon, and can recite many of the platform announcements by heart. 


David Burrows

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David F Burrows
Composes music for videogames. Dabbles in topiary. Frequently mistaken for Doctor Who.