By Confused of Crackley
Part One is available via this link.
A hundred miles away and fifteen hours later, the Minister was equally uncomfortable, but for very different reasons. His agreeable meal had been followed by an even more agreeable vintage port, then another, and now he was wondering whether a little moderation might have been advisable. He was preparing to turn in for the night, in his well-furnished London flat. Tomorrow would bring another day of meetings and he could do with a decent night’s sleep. No doubt he’d have to appear bright and breezy to everyone who would take an interest in him. He finally nodded off in the early hours.
The train crashed into his dreams without warning. Steam gushed from every orifice as it pulled into the station, clearing to reveal brightly polished brasswork and a gleaming black boiler. Passengers poured from the newly varnished doors of its carriages, laughing and talking excitedly. Only one figure didn’t seem to share their joy. He was dressed smartly enough, but his top hat was a little tatty and his collar somewhat threadbare. He stared at his pocket watch, then struggled to close it. The catch was broken. His brow furrowed and he was looking worried as he walked in the Minister’s direction.
“Fewer than yesterday,” he muttered as he approached. He stopped by the Minister’s shoulder, apparently eager to share his worries. “Fewer passengers, you see? The novelty’s already wearing off and they’re still just using it for the odd excursion. I’ve sunk serious money into this railway venture and it’s not meeting its projected cash flow.
Keen to share his business acumen, the Minister offered: “Ticket prices. That’s the key, you just increase them every year until it makes a decent profit. The passengers will come back as soon as the roads get congested.” “You may have a few years to wait.” he added, noticing the complete absence of motor vehicles around the station and the line of horse-drawn carriages.
“We’ve got serious debts to pay, this railway’s cost a fortune,” the man replied. “Been built in just a couple of years, but labour costs are exorbitant these days.”
“And the compensation too no doubt,” the Minister agreed, “for the people displaced from their homes.” – “Well, that’s only fair isn’t it? You can’t expect people living along the track to pay for it. We need public opinion on our side, or we’ll never get them to use it. None of them are out of pocket. They’ll all be able to move to equivalent houses somewhere else if they want to.”
The Minister awoke, as the Ghost of Railways Past slipped back into the steam. His head ached and his mouth was dry. Damned port, what was he thinking? After a glass of water, he pulled the covers up again. The Ghost of Railways Present was no less gentle in its arrival. It didn’t stop though, the wind from its speeding carriages and the blast of its horn hitting his senses, as it thundered past a few metres away. He looked around the yard as it receded, spotting another figure watching it go. The man’s gaze turned from the train to the iPad in his hand. He started poking it with his finger. Feeling the need for some company in the bleak yard, the Minister approached him.
“The web’s such a useful tool these days isn’t it?” he began, “Punch a few buttons and you get the whole timetable.” “They don’t stop you know,” the man replied. “It only takes 90 minutes to drive to London, so what’s the point? If you really want to take a train to the City from here, you can go from Coventry. Excellent service and it only takes an hour. Mind you, it’ll run less frequently when that new high speed thing happens – if it ever does.”
“Surely this town has enough London commuters to make a station worthwhile?”
“Yes, but there’s no money for a station. They say it would cost millions. Don’t know where the money would go myself, it’s just a lump of concrete isn’t it? But I’m not complaining. With shares in the railways, I don’t want them investing in a lemon. My dividends only just cover the cost of my monthly rail journeys up north. They go up horrendously every year. Where will it end? Government policy I suppose: ‘The Commuter Pays!’”, he said, laughing at his own joke. “The car’s a better way to get to London – far cheaper.”
The dream faded and the Minister glanced at the clock on the bedside table. He turned over and tried to get back to sleep. The rocking motion of the carriage was barely perceptible. The man opposite was dressed in a dapper pin-striped suit. He looked up from a small electronic box on the table in front of him. No doubt the latest impressive piece of technology, it seemed to be doing all the work, while its owner just stared at it, willing it to go on.
“Beautiful don’t you think?” Pin-Stripe offered, looking around the carriage. “German engineering at its best. Smart, clean, fast and plenty of space. It’s delivered everything it was supposed to.”
“Looks a bit empty to me. Where are all the passengers? This carriage is almost empty.”
“That’s the real beauty of it,” Pin-Stripe responded smoothly. “Capacity you see? It’s all about Capacity. Room for growth. It doesn’t matter that it’s empty now, it can fill up over the next 50 years.”
“But how does it make money?” The Minister’s business sense was being triggered and alarm bells were ringing.
“It doesn’t need to, does it? That’s the beauty of it.” A bit too smooth. “It’s funded from the public purse. It’ll be sold off at a loss of course, but that’s not the point. It’s here. The Government was brave enough to build it when it could and now it’s here. Journeys to London are a breeze. No quicker, what with all the congestion around the station, but what an experience once you’re on the train.”
“Well if this train’s empty, where are all the commuters? There used to be thousands of them.”
“On the other trains. That’s the beauty of it.” Getting irritating now. “Capacity on the fast trains, commuters on the other trains. All done through the railway pricing model. Pay a premium for the fast trains, keep the slow trains for the other people – the one’s who can’t afford it. One has to be realistic. Some of us have worked hard and made money, others have squandered their resources on ill-advised investments: family, houses and the like, and the layabouts don’t need to get anywhere at all. So, the Capacity is for those who deliver the real value to the economy. Growth, jobs, investment. It all works.”
Houses appeared through the window, the edge of a small town. Typical railway frontage properties, dirty, poorly maintained, seen better days. “Kenilworth” Pin-Stripe remarked.
“Wasn’t that an affluent town?” the Minister commented, not really interested.
“Sort of, it fancied itself as better than Coventry. Actually, it was rather a nice place to live. Had to be sacrificed though – for the Greater Good. There were demonstrations there, but it all worked out rather well in the end. See those houses on the north edge of the town? Highly over-priced at the time, but they’re affordable now. Solved two problems in one go. The country was desperate for affordable houses, but nobody could get a mortgage, so they weren’t being built. The railway created hundreds of affordable houses all along the route – without a brick being laid. Genius.”
“Two problems? What about the people who lived there? Did they leave?”
“Presumably. Couldn’t cope with the noise I suppose – well, would you?” Pin-Stripe gave an understanding nod. “No, the other problem was that the taxpayer couldn’t bear the cost of the compensation. The drop in value of thousands of houses was just too expensive, at a time of austerity. Then the master-stroke from the Government: get the householders to bear the losses themselves! ‘The Polluter Pays’ became ‘The Householder Pays.’” The smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Obvious really. No cost to the country, and just a few thousand people having to ‘downgrade’ – a small price to pay for the Greater Good, and boy has it been good! I’ve made a fortune.”
“How can there be fortunes to be made if the railway makes no profit?” Perplexed: the Minister’s infallible business model seemed to be crumbling. “Construction: infrastructure, that’s what it’s all about these days. Pick up a construction company for peanuts and get Government contracts to build the railway – simple!” Damn that port, the Minster thought for the umpteenth time, as he woke again. Must have been a poor year. Mental note to check the vintage next time.
Five o’clock. The clock mocked him, as he rolled over and tried to get back to sleep. The room smelt musty and was almost dark. Old furniture, old papers, old people. With a start, the Minister noticed he wasn’t alone. An elderly woman was stooped over a pile of papers by the desk. Her clothes were moth-eaten. Dirty fingernails poked nervously at knotted grey wisps on her head. She was clearly agitated, her eyes darting from one pile of papers to the next. She appeared to be looking for something.
The Minister was not an unkind man, always willing to help those in distress, so asked what she was looking for. “Power. Authority.” the old woman mumbled, clearly expecting him to understand. “I had it all once, and now its gone. Gone.”
“What happened?” he asked, not sure he was going to like the answer. “The people. The common people. They just didn’t appreciate what was good for them and voted me out. Voted us out – all of us.” Her voice was barely more than a whisper. He approached her, to hear more clearly. “Naïve they were. Took a promise as a promise, without seeing the wider picture. Too poorly informed to understand that a politician’s promise is a changeable commitment, has to be updated to keep it current.”
“What on earth did you promise them? Whatever it was, it must have meant a lot to them.” The exchange was going badly and he wished he’d changed the subject.
“Fair compensation for their homes by the railway, that was all. We said we understood their plight and would have a generous package to look after them. This was after the public consultation on the railway itself. The response was overwhelmingly against, even though we outlined the compensation packages. Of course, we had to withdraw the only package they supported, before the consultation on compensation itself. They took it all so seriously.” She was gripping his wrist now, her spittle escaping through the gaps in her teeth and staining his suit. “Didn’t understand that their loss was for the Greater Good. ‘We’re all in it together’ we kept telling them, but they seemed to think that losing their life savings in their homes and being prisoners in them for 15 years was a bigger loss than the rest of us were having to bear. We felt their pain with them, but they didn’t think that was enough. Humbug. They voted us out and some of us never got into positions of power again.”
Greening’s Ghost turned back to the papers and started shuffling them again. His alarm woke the Minister and he struggled out of bed – hardly the night’s sleep he had been expecting. He braced himself for the day ahead. Brave face, keep smiling. His diary contained a list of appointments with unknown persons. Probably constituents. People of little consequence. Not interesting, like the investors – the people one could relate to. These meetings with the common people could be such uncomfortable affairs. They didn’t know the rules – courtesy, certain things not said, a common understanding. It could get so personal at times. The real trick was to anticipate what they wanted to hear, then let them think they’d drawn it out of you, gained a concession. So, looking at the list now, who was the first person he’d have to meet? Cratchit. Now what could he be after?
An hour later, the Minister turned out of his smart flat and hailed a taxi. He’d worked hard to get to this position. He looked back at the façade of his second home. Really, you get what you pay for in life, he thought. So long as nobody puts a monstrosity next to it, anyway. The irony was lost on him.