• Host Michael Portillo's experiences with travelling on trains are improbable theatre. (BBC)Source: BBC
Great British Railway Journeys promises viewers a glimpse into Britain’s industrial greatness. But the real appeal is the fantasy that train travel doesn’t have to be a nightmare.
2 Mar 2017 - 2:15 PM  UPDATED 2 Mar 2017 - 2:16 PM

In 2017, railway journeys stink. Even the most devoted advocate for public transport - that would be me, by the way - can't even pretend to deny that travelling pretty much anywhere on any train at any time of the day is a hellish nightmare straight out of some trashy novel where a lone citizen is Pushed Too Far by the horrors of a crumbling society.

We all like to look down at our phones and think technology is a process that moves ever forward, improving our lives with each generation. Then we look up, see we're on a train that looks like the waiting room for the terminally sweaty and realise that often progress is nothing more than a sick, sad joke.

So there's a reason I'm excited about the return of Great British Railways Journeys: it's the best fantasy show on television.

Sure, it looks like part of the appeal of the show is the trip through British history. Biscuit factories! Beatrix Potter! How glass-making has evolved over the years! Did you know the Acme train whistle has been manufactured in Birmingham since 1884? Or that Hampton Court Palace has the world's longest grapevine?

But for public transport users, the real attraction is the strange yet magical world totally unlike our own that host Michael Portillo steps into every time he boards a train. Even when he's on a modern train, taking a regular trip, there's a supernatural aura of ease that surrounds Portillo's trips that's utterly, compellingly alien to even a casual train user. He sits back, has a chat, looks out the window and has a delightful time.

In contrast, my last train trip involved me sitting next to a man who had, judging by his smell, seemingly come fresh from putting out a fire at a tobacco plantation by rolling himself over the smouldering plants. But at least that provided some distraction from the woman across from me who might have been some kind of living snow-woman constructed of talcum powder. Then the tobacco man started looking at porn on his phone with the sound on: why bother with headphones when it's only an hour's trip?

In the UK, the success of Great British Rail Journeys has been credited with reviving the concept of rail holidays, and no wonder: it's a nonstop celebration of the idea that train travel is special, that getting there really is half the fun.

Of course, Portillo doesn't have to deal with the overcrowded festival of bodily odours and personal space invasions I've encountered, including a dancing man wildly swinging his elbows at other passengers - a danger to others and himself.

No, when he boards a special carriage (pulled by The Flying Scotsman no less) to travel from King's Cross to Edinburgh in one episode, his trip bears about as much in common with today's train travel as crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary II does with taking an elevator with seven dyspeptic gentlemen holding a farting contest.

It's like looking at another world. One free of screaming children, screaming adults, screaming music and screaming brakes.

How did things go so wrong for the rest of us?

When Portillo climbs on board a train to explore some rail-accessible corner of the UK's industrial past, he climbs onto a train where the passengers are quiet and respectful, the service is prompt and efficient, the seats aren't damp from some unidentified substance and when a person taps you on a shoulder it's a friendly conductor wanting to make sure everything is all right, not some dubious character trying to get you to hand over a dollar for a train ticket who then swears loudly at you when you point out you're already on a train.

It's great television. And a great fantasy.


Series 7 of Great British Railway Journeys airs Thursdays at 7:30pm on SBS. After they air, episodes will be available on SBS On Demand.

Watch the first episode right here:

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