Last weekend I took the train down to Birmingham and something nice happened. Not exciting, or especially interesting, just nice.
I used to be a frequent train traveller – you know pre-pandemic when we did stuff all the time without thinking about it. I am intimately familiar with the entire length of the West Coast Main Line all the way from Glasgow to London. Strangely, Birmingham isn’t particularly easy to reach from Glasgow so this particular journey involved multiple changes as well as the usual minor delays.
Ordinarily, once on board a train I sit back, put my earphones in and listen to music, read a book or perhaps try to do some work. This time I was all prepared for the 5 hours each way with my phone, earbuds, book and laptop. But then something strange and unusual happened. I got talking to my fellow passengers.
Not just the usual “Hi, how are you?”, “Where are you off to?” “Ah that’s nice.” We are British and polite after all. No, this time I had proper, extended conversations with multiple people on multiple trains. In fact I spent all of 10 minutes on my laptop, didn’t put my earphones in at all or read a single word of my book during the combined 10 hours of travelling.
Why did this happen? I’m honestly not sure. The delays, other train cancellations and imminent strikes certainly provided some fuel for discussion. The weather, obviously, a 30 degree heatwave had been predicted for that day which only came to fruition in half of the country. Perhaps it was the novelty of travelling and being among people again. For me this was the first long train journey I had done since early March 2020.
But all that could have just been the usual small talk, snippets of interaction before the earphones go back in, the book gets picked up again or the eyes gaze back down at the phone. People actually seemed more keen to talk, chat and converse. They were receptive to communication, not just grunting one word answers then getting back to minding their own business. Questions were asked and answered, willingly and easily, followed up on and supplemented.
The great thing about cross country trains is that you get all sorts of passengers. There were families, couples, solo travellers and even a dog. We were Scottish, English, European, Asian and South African. We were young, we were old. And for the duration of our journeys, we were friends.
An older man going to visit his daughter in Liverpool. A couple returning from a day trip to Blackpool where it unfortunately wasn’t anywhere near 30 degrees. A man coming back from his brother’s stag do. Another couple (and dog) travelling from London to Scotland about to rent a campervan and tour around for a week. Some I didn’t find out where find out where they were from or where they were going to but I did hear their views on sheep farming, mosquitoes and the RNLI.
Despite our apparent differences, it’s amazing how there’s always something that can be found in common with strangers. (More on that here) One of the men also worked in interpreting. A woman and I laughed together about how our kids freak out if there’s the tiniest of flies in the house. The merits of various Scottish football stadia was discussed with another man. It doesn’t take much to scratch scratch the surface to find some commonality, that thing that makes you go, “yes, I know!” or “hey, me too!”.
As much as I love listening to music and reading a good book, these conversations with strangers helped pass the time and made it rather enjoyable. There may have been no life changing event – I didn’t lock eyes with someone across the table and instantly fall in love – well except for Bimba the Cavapoo. I didn’t meet anyone who offered me a fantastic job or who will change my life in any way but for those few hours each day these people did make my life a little bit more interesting and pleasant.
It was nice. There’s a lot to be said for nice.