The Station

27 January 2018 | Diary

Our local railway station must have been designed by Satan himself. Every detail has been expertly sculpted to cumulatively unhinge the once-sane commuter. It is a work of total design genius, the Mackintosh House of Hell.

At first, the station seems quite charming. There’s a bucket of flowers maintained by Friends of the Station and a wall plaque celebrating a bronze award for Scotland’s Tip-Toppest Station. It is staffed by friendly humans where most similarly-sized stations have been automated. There’s even a station cat, though he doesn’t wear a conductor’s hat like you insist on imagining.

But forget all of that. These are mere flourishes put in place by Beelzebub to disarm you before the madness of his black design takes hold of your skull.

I’ve been taking more trains than usual — often during rush hour — and experiencing the station from the perspective of a commuter for the first time. It makes me want to set up some sort of commuter’s union. The poor bastards have difficult enough lives as it is, without starting each day in a Jean-Paul Sartre play.

Any train you care to name is guaranteed to be late — by three minutes. It is so inevitable that I wonder why they don’t simply adjust the timetables to account for it.

Each delay is accompanied by an automated announcement over the PA system to inform us that “we are sorry to announce that the eight oh eight to Dalmuir is delayed by approximately three minutes. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.” Given that every single train is late and will continue to be late forever, I don’t think this is necessary. We take it for granted. Moreover, as arrivals to this station are so frequent, the announcements form a chain, an endlessly repetitive reminder that you should have learned to drive.

There is a set of double doors to enter the vestibule where the ticket kiosk dwells. A sign describes the doors as “automatic” but they are merely electric. To open them, you must push a button intended for wheelchair users and then they slowly, slowly, ever-so-slowly open in a theatrical “open sesame!” way as if they should reveal a Georges Méliès wonderland rather than a few chairs and some tourist information leaflets. They also close quite forcibly on their own (ah, so they are automatic) cutting the patiently-waiting ticket queue in half.

Most maddening of all — I have saved the best ’til last — are the information screens. Ah yes, the screens.

There are two little screens, one to describe arrivals and departures for Platform 1 and one to do the same for Platform 2. The screens are quite small, capable of displaying perhaps ten short rows of digital text.

The only information a commuter wants to see on these screens is (1) the terminus and station stops of the next train to depart the platform and (2) the arrival times and destinations of perhaps the next five trains. That is all. Instead, it gives us superfluous information about trains arriving at the other platform and various “special announcements” that really aren’t special at all.

These special announcements are either highly generic (reminders not to leave baggage unattended) or ludicrously specific (the elevator at Exhibition Centre is out of order) and not relevant to anyone at this particular moment.

Inevitably, you arrive at the station to find a train whose body language suggests it is ready to leave. You want to know immediately if it’s your scheduled train to work, or some other delayed train — perhaps a non-stop scenic service to John o’Groats.

But instead, all the screen tells you is that you must inform the Transport Police if you see anything unusual (like a train that actually leaves on time, perhaps?) and that this notice is “screen 6/8.” You just know that by the time the information you so pressingly need rolls around, your train to work — crammed with colleagues clutching their Andy McNabs — will be a dot on the horizon.

Is it so unlikely that there’s a CCTV booth somewhere, staffed by two Scotrail demons who, like the Sun and Wind of the Aesop’s Fable, compete with one another to see how many commuters they can convince down onto the tracks? I am certain of it.