"THIS IS THE age of the train," posters for the British Rail system proclaim. And why not? At its best, train travel is a movable feast for the eyes and a state of suspended animation for the senses.
But this summer has been among the worst of times for the riders and the rails in Great Britain. A two-day strike in late June by members of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) coincided with a shutdown of London's subway system by a separate work stoppage, thus wreaking havoc with the schedules of commuters and vacationers alike. Then a second strike in July, by members of the locomotive drivers' union, lasted two weeks and forced cancellation of 90 percent of the system's 15,000 daily trains.
Nonetheless, it sounded to us like such a lovely, civilized way to get to know a country: lean back in an air-conditioned car, sip a gin and tonic, nibble a biscuit and wait for the scenery to change. In Western civilization, train travel is synonymous with romance and gracious living; where you are going is less important than how you get there. In the jet age that is rather an anachronism, but certainly this is a large part of the appeal.
For my husband and me, it was our first trip abroad, and we planned to spend much of it watching the artistry of nature through train windows. We had each spent $219 for BritRail passes that entitled us to unlimited first-class travel for 14 days. No one told us that BritRail's days would be limited.
We start in London and head north toward Edinburgh aboard the Flying Scotsman, watching grime give way to green and eavesdropping on the conversation of an elderly couple from Ontario who are seated across the aisle from us.
"The people back home will love to get these papers," she tells him. It is the day after the birth of the nation: the royal baby, the boy who will be king someday. If an heir is in St. Mary's Hospital, all must be right in the empire.
At this point, less than two hours after deplaning from a packed DC-10 at Gatwick Airport just south of London, and with my body clock still five hours behind the sun, rail travel seems a wonderful exercise in nonexertion. I lean back and watch the rain punch tiny holes in the fog. Occasional towns intrude on the green and gray--Doncaster, Selby, York. As we head north, the towns have less hold on the countryside, giving way gracefully to nature; the netherworld of suburbia is eliminated.
Almost 300 miles into the trip, we edge through Newcastle. The city bustles and smolders as it twists about the Tyne River. Tiny greenhouses dot the neighborhoods in town and, as we gain ground on the North Sea, stone houses climb into the hills.
Suddenly, we are at the sea's edge, skirting a green and briefly joining a golfing foursome. It is this as much as anything seen from a train, this illusion of oneness with the country and its people, that redeems the rails. The Flying Scotsman takes its passengers into the heart of the border country, sidling past croquet fields and cliffs as it nears the capital city.
Journey's end comes in slightly more than five hours, but for us it is only the beginning. There's a whole island to explore and 9 1/2 days left to do it in. Our rail passes give us the option of unlimited destinations; if this stop doesn't suit us, there's always another. Certainly, this idea is not original; 70,000 BritRail passes are sold annually in North America.
The next morning, BBC radio informs us that a threatened strike by the NUR could shut down BritRail within four days. Suddenly, our hopscotching plans--London to Edinburgh to London to Broadway to Brighton--don't seem so plausible. Oh well, we tell ourselves, you know how these things are: The unions give management a deadline and then more talks are held, the deadline is pushed back and so it goes. At that rate, we could be toasting our toes in front of our fireplace back in Baltimore by the time anything comes of all this.
But this is unlike anything comparable in the United States. The union is speaking for its members, but the voice is that of 23 men on the executive committee, who have called the strike without consulting the membership. When the workers ask for a vote, the answer is no, even though BritRail claims a survey it commissioned shows 90 percent of the workers are opposed to a strike.
There is an old saying that although everybody talks about the weather, nobody does anything about it. That seems to fit the rail system in Great Britain.
"Bashing British Rail is a national bloodsport," Peter Parker, the head of BritRail, was quoted as saying recently. "You only get out of a system what you put into it, and nobody puts any money into British Rail."
It should be pointed out that the British government does subsidize the system, which still faces a loss of a reported $300 million annually. At this moment, however, the biggest potential loss seems to be personal. Can't all this wait until we leave?
It's beginning to appear it can't wait, so we decide to get the most out of the BritRail pass while we can. Good-bye Edinburgh, hello Stirling.
We make our way northwest to the ancient Scottish capital through the mist of the morning on an unsteady local train, stopping every few minutes and then lurching on again. The seats are rigid, old and worn and there is no food available.
This is a train for working days. The stops are not called out; it is assumed that you either know where you are going or don't plan to get there. And, on a day when the damp air soaks the chill into the bones, there is no heat for much of the trip. When it finally comes on, we move to seats right beside the vents.
The body may suffer on the excursion, but the spirit is refreshed by the beauty of the passing show. The town itself spills over steep hills and rocks and is delightful for a self-guided walking tour. Among the sites are a castle that once was the capitol of Scotland and a church in which James VI was coronated when 13 months old. Behind the church is an ancient cemetery; a custodian says the graves marked with skulls and crossbones are those of Scots who died of the plague. Beyond the graves is a jagged peak, "Ladies' Rock," where noblewomen once gathered to watch knights joust on the grass below.
Several scones, chunks of oat shortbread and glasses of wine later, we are back at the station waiting to return to the 20th century. The station could have been decorated by your grandmother: Flowers are everywhere, little islands of color and light. It seems a shame to move on, but the ride back to Edinburgh proves to be warmer, although perhaps it is only the wine.
"What a Bloody Mess! Chaos Looms In Rail Strike Call," reads the headline in the Daily Star as our train heads west out of Edinburgh to begin a circuitous journey back to London. We seem to be winding through the peaceable kingdom, but BritRail seems to be heading for open warfare.
We try to push that out of our mind, enjoying instead the muted colors of the growing hills, which seem to be created by an impressionist's giant brush strokes. For this segment of the trip, our car is perfect. The lights in our compartment even have a dimmer switch. As the sheep wear trails in the distance, rain pats gently on the window. Can there really be trouble in this paradise?
That question seems ludicrous when we get off in Carlisle. A chalkboard sign warns commuters of the likelihood of a work stoppage and says workers will do what they can to keep service running. But no promises. We board the train for London's Euston Station with uneasy thoughts.
Happily, such everyday worries are drowned easily by a cocktail and the splendor of the British countryside. We ease past Jersey cows wading through a stream, geese toddling beside a pond, frame after frame of what could be landscapes painted by John Constable or John Crone.
By the time we reach London, we have almost pushed the imminent strike out of our minds. It intrudes, however, as we wait for the better part of an hour in a line for a taxi; the London subway strike is already in full swing.
Even before the threatened NUR strike comes two days later, London's streets are parking lots. When the rail system grinds to a halt, so do our plans. Can we get to Broadway, a village about an hour and a half away by rail or car? Only if we want to walk, it seems. Coaches are booked solid, car rental agencies are swamped and even the most expensive alternative, a cab, seems unattainable. Even getting a taxi for a short ride through midtown London is a challenge.
We decide to skip the peace and quiet of the country and stay in London, where we are fortunate to have a room. Because of the problems commuters are having, many are staying in town and virtually all of the centrally located hotels report they are booked solid.
BritRail is not without sympathy for travelers, although it is at a bit of a loss to help them while they are trying to muddle through, according to Grace Spencer, a spokesman in BritRail's New York office. Once the trip is over, however, pass holders will be refunded on a pro-rated basis for time lost.
Such a deal. Although getting the money back is helpful, there is no way to recapture the time, and that is the most costly loss of all.