Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

It's easy to trace the tracks of my tears

Regular cross-border commuter Michael Wolsey has a love-hate affair with the Belfast-Dublin 'express'. And don't even start him on the tea trolley ...

The place is central station, Amsterdam. The time, by the platform clock, is 14.24. The 14.22 train to Schiphol airport is departing two minutes late. A man sitting opposite me looks at the clock and checks his watch. "They are never on time,'' he says with a sigh.

My friend, my friend, come here to me. Listen to my story and count your blessings.

Another day, another station; Drogheda to be precise. I am waiting for the 8.08 Enterprise express to Belfast.

My watch tells me the train is nine minutes late. The clock on the platform tells me the time is 6.03. Since it is an old-fashioned, 12-hour clock with a face and hands, I do not know if this is am or pm.

There is no announcement to explain the whereabouts of the Enterprise, nor is there any written explanation. In fact, there is no arrivals or departures board of any sort on the platform, which is now getting quite crowded, because a lot of commuters have arrived for a train to Dublin. From their grumbles, I gather their train is also late.

A train pulls in noisily on the platform opposite. An announcement is made at last, but the words are drowned by the din. Puzzled passengers look to each other for advice and a woman decides it is the Dublin train. She makes for stairs leading to the other platform and starts a wildebeest-like stampede in that direction.

A station official attempts to turn the tide. After much gesticulating he succeeds in sending the unhappy commuters back to platform one.

In the midst of this, the Belfast express arrives, 16 minutes late. At least, I assume it is the Belfast express, since it is going in that direction.

There is no audible announcement and some passengers think it might be the train to Dublin. But, once on board, I am in no doubt, for I know this train well. I am a regular voyager on the Starship Enterprise.

France's TGV has hit a speed of 574.8km-per-hour (357mph) in tests. It averages 320km/h (200mph). Japan's Bullet Train averages 300km/h (186mph). China's Harmony Express covers the 1,318km (819 miles) from Beijing to Shanghai in less than five hours.

Any of these trains could travel from Belfast to Dublin in about half-an-hour. The Enterprise, pride of Ireland's rail service north and south, makes the trip in two hours and 10 minutes on a good day and there aren't too many of those.

Iarnrod Eireann, which runs the southern wing of this inter-galactic craft, has a service pledge for Enterprise voyagers. 'We are committed to 90% of our intercity trains arriving at their final destination within 10 minutes of the published time,' it says. Indeed. I don't think it would impress the man in Amsterdam. And punctuality is not the only thing that might puzzle him. I recently met two of his compatriots who were finding it hard to come to terms with the catering.

We are somewhere near the border and have avoided attack by Romulans or Klingons on the starboard bow.

A woman comes through the carriage announcing that the snack trolley man is on the way: "But if yis want hot drinks, yis'll have to go to the bar, because his boiler is busted."

At the bar I am in a queue behind a Dutch couple and an elderly woman, who only wants hot water. "I'll have to charge you for tea,'' the waiter tells her.

"I don't want tea,'' says the woman. "But I'll have to charge you for tea,'' says the waiter.

The conversation continues like this for a while until the woman agrees to pay for tea.

The waiter puts hot water in a cardboard cup and a stirring stick into a paper bag, although there is nothing to stir. "I'll just put your wee tea bags in there, too,'' he says.

"But I don't want tea,'' says the woman. "Ah, well,'' says the waiter, "you're paying for tea, so you might as well have them.''

At this point, the busted boiler lady arrives. "If I'd known you wanted hot water, I could have filled a flask for you,'' she tells the woman. "But I haven't got a flask,'' says the baffled woman. She attempts to pay with a £20 note, but the waiter has no change.

While the woman searches in her purse, the Dutch couple successfully order two coffees, but they have nothing smaller than a €50 note and that's no use at all.

Gallantly, and because I'd like coffee before I reach Belfast, I offer to pay for us all. This gesture falls flat when I look in my wallet and discover only €50 and a £20 note.

This two-currency conundrum causes utter confusion, but a man behind comes to the rescue and pays for the lot with a tenner.

"Keep the change,'' he tells the waiter, sarcastically. And you know what? He does.

The strangers from Holland look amused and amazed, but we regular voyagers take it all in our stride.

Just another Starship adventure. Beam me up, Scotty.

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