02 June 2007

Zen sardines

I started my first contract this week. It's a bit strange to be working again - especially as my contract is with a huge organisation I worked for previously for nearly a decade - but I'm enjoying it. The work is interesting, involving some research into an area of communication that I've not worked on for a while, but it's not stressful. And I'm only there for four weeks, three days a week, so 'yay'!

What is stressful, though, is the travelling. One of the good things about my last job was that it was located outside of Melbourne's central business district and very close to home; I caught a leisurely tram there every morning, and only had to go about four stops. Ah, the ease of it all.

My current contract is in the city, however, which means that I need to catch the train to and from work during the rush hour. This is not something I've done for five years, and I've not missed it a bit. And after only three days of doing it, I am shocked at how bad Melbourne's rail system has got recently.

The apalling state of our trains has been getting a lot of attention in the news recently. I've also heard The Hubster complain a lot about the frustrations of getting around on the train too. But I didn't really appreciate how bad it is until I became a train-traveller myself this week.

Trains are cancelled. They don't turn up when they are meant to. Some travel at a snail's pace. Or you're kept waiting outside a station for five minutes.

Worst of all is the constant misleading communication about what's happening. Last night I was at Southern Cross station (which looked very impressive in the dark of the early evening) attempting to catch a train on the Sandringham line. It was just before 6pm, and the screens told me that there were two Sandringham trains, one scheduled at 5.52pm and the other at 6.04pm; the wait for both of them was listed though at 36 minutes. If a train is going to arrive at 6.36pm, I don't think you can really pretend it's a 5.52pm train, can you?

(Eventually I worked out that the best thing was to get to Flinders Street, where I caught the 6.12pm train at 6.20pm.)

Of course, with all of this confusion, the trains are incredibly overcrowded and uncomfortable. So it was with some irony that, while travelling home, I read the following passage in the novel I'm currently reading, Lionel Shriver's The Post-Birthday World.

"With no explanation over the loudspeaker, the train lurched to a standstill. Sitting for fifteen minutes under a quarter-mile of rock was so commonplace on the Northern Line, the city's worst, that none of the passengers bothered to look up from their Daily Mails. In relation to the eccentricities of the Underground 'service', regular riders would have long since passed through the conventional stages of consternation, despair, and long-suffering, and graduated to an imperturbable Zen tranquility. One could alternatively interpret the passangers' expressions of unquestioning acceptance as sophisticated, or bovine." (the first Chapter 3, p86)

I suppose I shouldn't complain too much, because I've only joined this downtrodden community of train-travellers for a short while. I wonder how long it takes you to become a Zen-like sardine?

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