I spent yesterday traversing almost the entire width of the UK by train.  This was a largely trouble-free experience, though there was some uncertainty involved between Birmingham and Shrewsbury where the front and rear two cars of my train were briefly in a sort of super-position.  The waveform “collapsed” at Shrewsbury, where two additional “cars” were attached, and I found myself in the correct portion of the train (which had been the front two on arrival, but became the rear two on departure – Shrewsbury acting like a mirror if you are a through train).

This journey left me pondering (not for the first time) the rather curious choice of language employed on the railways.

  • Why do “guards” (or whatever corporate title such folk are given today) refer to the next station stop?  Surely one of the s-words is redundant?  Both would only be required if they announced stations where we will not be stopping, or stops we will be making which do not involve a station – but, I have never heard either of these “events” being announced.
  • When listing the stopping points (stations) of a service, what does the word “only” mean when appended to the list?  I once thought it suggested the train was “limited stop” or somewhat express, and would not be stopping at all possible stations, but “only” is used even when every possible station is to be visited.  Is it perhaps a guarantee of no delays?  Even if a signal is red, unless this is at one of the named stations, this train will take its chances and just keep on going regardless?  Perhaps the word “only” is the signal for the passengers (sorry, customers) to check the wording of their life insurance prior to boarding?
  • Can you have impersonal belongings?  If so, I presume you are at liberty to leave them on the train when you disembark.

The final few yards of the first segment of my journey did leave me wondering if the guard was being sponsored by our destination (or the subject of a bet with a friend or colleague).  As we approached Birmingham New Street (not one of the network’s finer termini) the guard managed to name-check the station no less than eight (8!) times in little more than 60 seconds.  To be honest, once arrived the station made little effort to conceal its identity – and as we were all forced to disembark, if it wasn’t what you were hoping for I don’t think that 60 seconds notice would have been much help (unless it gave affected passengers time to go to their mental “safe place”).

Still, linguistic quirks aside, I still think that rail is the best option for travel beyond the range of a comfortable cycle journey.  It allows one to sleep, drink and read a book (among many other things) – all of which seem to be actively discouraged when driving…


One thought on “RailSpeak

  1. Stuart Ffoulkes says:

    An alternative view of my Midlands-based rail journey (for those not keen on the quantum approach) would be via the window of Lisp. In this way, I started in the car but following a cons at Threwthbury was very much in the cdr (in fact in the cdr of the cdr of the cdr). (This does remind me of the old Lisp programmers bumper sticker, “My other car is a cdr”.)

    In fact, it strikes me that Lisp is a language with syntax and semantics ideally suited to describe the formation of rail units – even those rare examples which can be hump-shunted (and what an image that always generates when I see that it has, once again, been forbidden). I think the Rev W Audry missed a trick here – or perhaps he was writing before the IBM 704 – but I would have thought that with all the new Sodor-based material produced since 1960 his successors could have made good the lack and introduced the very young to the valuable life skill of parenthesis matching.

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