What can Britain learn from Europe’s trains – and vice versa?

That sweet platform-zoning goodness, saving you from embarrassing runs since time immemorial. Image: Santiago Calatrava

Ok, confession straight out of the gates: this is mostly a chance for me to brag at length about the fact that I just spent two weeks frolicking around Europe on trains whilst the world started turning out the lights and giving up in the face of the first fortnight of Trump’s presidency.

With that out of the way, let’s get down to business. Armed with a large rucksack, an extended overdraft, and an Interrail pass, I set off across eight countries: Britain (definitely counts), France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and the Vatican City (definitely counts).

I hopped on trundling clapped-out regional chuggers, gleaming high-speed wonders, pitifully grimy and disorganised city underground networks (here’s looking at you, Rome), and also one erroneous €70 taxi after I got cocky about how late German trains would run.

And several things became clear. One is that Europe’s trains really are very good, and better than ours in a number of important ways. But another was that despite their glamour, and the lustful glances we shoot at them over the Brexit-infested water of the channel, they’re not flawless – there’s plenty the continental can learn from our way of doing things on rails.

But first, what lessons can we learn from the caffè-sipping, currywurst-chopming, beret-sporting ways of our continental cousins?

Or; 'Where the f***'s my f***ing train?' Image: Spixey.

No platform 9¾ at the 11th hour

My least favourite bit about going back to university would always be waiting with the masses in King’s Cross station, staring vapidly at the departures board. As the train’s scheduled departure time drew closer and closer, the crowd would grow, becoming ever more tetchy and anxious, necks craning to look up at a bank of LEDs devoid of any useful information as to where the train actually was.

Finally, one minute before the train is due to leave, the words ‘Platform 8’ and ‘Boarding’ flash up. The hordes push, curse, maim, slaughter, and tut to scramble to the platform in the 45 seconds before the train’s alleged departure time. And yet, the same train departs from the same station at the same time on the same day every week, heading to the same place. Why is it so hard to tell us in advance which platform the train is leaving from?

Germany is a big winner here. You go to the station, you look at the departures board, and it tells you which platform your train will leave from. You go to the platform, and a board shows all the trains that arrive at that platform every day, and where on the platform your specific coach will pull up. It’s beautiful. I love it.

St. Pancras, the only London station with evidence of an outside world. Image: Franselplatz.

Become citizens of the world

Obviously, when you’re in a large international rail terminus, there are a lot of languages going on. I was minding my business in Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof – slightly lost myself – and a German teenager, a French couple, and a Spanish old lady all came up to me in succession asking for help, in their own languages.

Let me tell you – GCSEs can only get you so far. But these large stations across Germany, Italy, and France – and the metro, U-Bahn, and S-Bahn stations in many cities – announce in things in at least two languages, often three and – in one case – five.

In the UK, St Pancras might blab a bit of French at you, but apart from that you’re out of luck. The London Underground certainly won’t make a habit of speaking to you in French, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a suburban rail service that’ll whack out some German on its way down to East Croydon.

And for what it’s worth, I think that’s a great shame. Not only does it make it harder for international visitors to work out where they are or where they’re going – despite the fact, as we always hear, that English is a ‘global language’, but offering more languages makes a place feel so much more welcoming.

So, in a few months’ time I expect to hear: “Dans quelques instants, nous arriverons au Cirque du Piccadilly. Changez ici pour les trains de Bakerloo. Descendez ici pour boire beaucoup en Soho”. Or something. Or is London not truly open, Sadiq? Is Britain not truly global, Theresa?

An SNCF train hurtling to its next jingle-ridden station. Image: David Gubler.

Master the sound of music

No, I’m not talking about the dreadful tunes they pipe through the stations on the Rome Metro, which is sinful and should be banned. No. I’m referring to the beautiful blessing from on high that is the SNCF station announcement noise.

It’s wonderful. If you haven’t heard it, or weren’t paying attention last time you were in Gare du Nord (have you seen your wallet recently?), it’s here. It’s so cool that people have made remixes of it. Slinky, sexy remixes. Hip, happening, en vogue remixes. Also a guy beatboxing on a flute.

Hey, Virgin East Coast? Think you’re so cool with your fancy trains and cool branding? Get back to me when a guy takes time out of his life to beatbox to your jingle. And another guy takes time out of his life to watch it on repeat (nope, definitely not me, that would be weird).

Generic pretty photo of train in Alps. Image: David Gubler.

Take back control of platforms

We’ve all had it. The embarrassing moment when you head to the train platform in plenty of time and muster your most suave cosmopolitan-businessperson pose; umbrella under the arm, flat white in one hand and newspaper in the other. The train pulls in and you glance up, nonchalantly. Oh, hey, you think. That’s my train.

And then it hurtles past you and comes to a hasty stop miles away from you at the other end of the incredibly long platform. You’re forced to crack out your embarrassingly gangly run, most of the flat white ends up all over your trousers, the newspaper failed to mind the gap between the train and the platform, and your hair’s a state.

This would never happen in Switzerland. In the land of the rather insular and a little xenophobic hijab-banning folk Swiss, the platform information board tells you which ‘zones’ the train will stop at. It tells you that if you have a first class seat, you should stand in Zone A, if you’re a second-class citizen you should wait in Zones C-E, and that if you’re feeling peckish, Zone B will host the overpriced Swiss snacks. Germany does the same thing, and it’s wonderful.

Get it together, Britain.

Smug photo I took from the panoramic bar on a train in Switzerland. Image: Jack May.

Grab ‘em by the kuchen

The humble train food and drink trolley, immortalised by J.K. Rowling, has gone out of fashion. In the days of, as insinuated above, the latte-grabbing pastry-chomping masses there is little demand for goods trundling down the narrow aisle of the 7.14 to King’s Lynn.

True, longer-distance trains have a pokey café bar, where you can neck a tiny bottle of wine if you’re en route to some particularly cliché family reunion, or have a break have a KitKat© if the cravings overcome you.

But in Germany, you can have flammkuchen and a glass of chilled (and actually not terrible) white wine at a restaurant-style table whilst the snow-dashed fields of Southern Bavaria fly past the window.

And in Switzerland, if you time it right, you can swig from a very large glass of very nice red wine in a window-covered carriage with 360-degree views of the Swiss Alps as club music blares and phlegm-infested (or Swiss-German-speaking, I wasn’t sure) skiers rock out some dad-dancing behind you.

Give me a high-speed train to Edinburgh with a bar for sipping a Rioja as Berwick-upon-Tweed drifts past; a long trundle down to Penzance with a steak & kidney pie as the train clings to the coast. Wouldn’t that be more like it?

Now with the virtues of European trains fully extolled, let me just grab my EU passport and my beret and hop back over there while I still can. Ciao, darling, tschüss.

P.S. – Europe, get some ticket barriers? You’ll save a whole load of money on people not paying their train fares, and you can save money by not having some poor soul march up and down every single train checking tickets. Also, more importantly, you’ll stop waking me up from my naps.

Just a thought, guys. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.