I was on a train from Sussex to London, my first since lockdown, when I realised I like my commute. The thought worried me a little. What kind of weirdo have I become? A commute is a psychological hurdle, something to be endured, not enjoyed. What’s next? The giddy thrill of waiting in a queue? A root-canal fan club? There are some aspects to commuting I don’t enjoy — the expense of a season ticket, of course, and frustrating delays — but overall, yes, I do like it. And during lockdown I actually missed it.
What makes my enjoyment even weirder is that I have no interest in trains. There are some big train enthusiasts in my family — my great uncle can point out inaccuracies in Ravilious’s depiction of a third-class Great Western Railway carriage — but I’m neutral at best. It’s the journey I like. Or, to be more accurate, I like the uninterrupted two and half hours in my day that the journey guarantees.
I see my commute as a sort of airlock between home and the office. I’m lucky to love my family and my job — it would be hard, I think, to go from one to the other if I dreaded either — but the commute gives me two and half hours a day to spend how I please with no other task at hand. At the height of lockdown, friends and colleagues raved about the many books they had the time to read now they were working from home. The opposite was true for me. Without my usual time with Southeastern, I was reading much less.
Some people do extraordinary, creative things on their commute. The author Fiona Mozley tapped out her debut novel on her phone. It was shortlisted for the Booker in 2017. Anthony Trollope, who started writing at 5.30 every morning, made a portable, knee-mounted desk so he could continue to work in his carriage. I don’t know if anything quite so impressive happens on my Hastings line, but I sometimes see two men playing an early morning game of chess, which is very cheering.
I returned to commuting at the start of August and I can honestly say I’ve never known the experience to be this good. At the risk of sounding like a tourist who grumbles that Venice is too full of tourists, one of the drawbacks about commuting is other commuters. But now most national rail services are running as normal even though most people are still working from home. So we’re in the marvellous situation of having the usual number of trains but for around 20 per cent of the number of commuters. Before the pandemic, my train was usually standing room only by the time it rolled into Charing Cross. I live far enough down the line to always get a seat, but on a bad day it’s nose to armpit for some. Now, even in the middle of rush hour, the carriage is nearly deserted. I’m enjoying this while it lasts, because there’s no way it can go on. If commuters don’t return in large numbers, the rail companies will have to cut their services. Either way, sooner or later, the carriages will start filling up again.
But for now it’s blissful. No legs clashing under the table, no body odours, no tinny music droning from neighbouring earbuds. It feels a bit wicked to relish what is essentially a sign of London’s economic slump, but one of the eeriest things about this pandemic is how lovely much of it is.
The only major downside to commuting at the moment is the face masks, which have been mandatory on public transport for a while now. It takes some concentration to stop myself from squinting at the distracting bit of fabric on the end of my nose when I’m trying to read. But worse still, masks give train conductors another excuse, as if they needed one, to interrupt the journey’s peace with reminders of the rules over the tannoy. If I’m unlucky, I’m stuck with one particularly annoying conductor who delivers his announcements with the forced cheeriness of a game show host handing out prizes. He likes face masks.
In a 1902 essay, H.G. Wells, who was interested in the future of rail travel, predicted that by the year 2000 people would work in London while living anywhere in England south of Nottingham and east of Exeter. Not a bad prophecy; but if anything he underestimated a bit. Today there are people who commute to London from Retford, an hour north of Nottingham. Wells also wrote that ‘the daily journey … has had, and probably always will have, a maximum limit of two hours, one hour each way from sleeping place to council chamber, counter, workroom, or office stool’. Again, he underestimated. Before Covid, nearly four million people in the country travelled for more than two hours to and from work. One or two even enjoyed it. Weirdos.