I bought this book minutes before getting on a Virgin train from Glasgow to London, and although I didn't have the "priviledge" of meeting the foul mouthed buffet car attendant Umerji, I certainly did manage to be eleven minutes late (fifteen to be exact). The title of course refers to the latest idiosyncracy of the British railway network, in that a long distance train is only "late" if the delay at the arrival terminus exceeds ten minutes.
That aside, Matthew Engel takes us on a journey from Penzance to Thurso and back; up and down the modern network, fighting his way through the many quirks and idiosyncracies of a transport system originally built by feuding Victorian entrepreneurs more interested in making a profit than necessarily doing what was best for serving society's needs. The story is intertwined with a brief history of how the system we know today came about; the various highs and lows from the Railway Mania of the mid 19th Century, the subsequent consolidation and nationalisation into British Rail, culimating in the disastrous 1990s privatisation and its aftermath. Along the way, the story is interspersed with little anecdotes about the people and situations Engel encounters on his travels.
The British of course have a love/hate relationship with the iron road. We get misty eyed over old steam engines, heritage lines, how the infamous Beeching cuts of the 1960s were one of the biggest acts of post-war vandalism, yet complain that todays trains are too often late, too old, too expensive, and represent inefficient use of taxpayer's money. Yet we all know our country was built by its railways, and that we simply can't do without them - for all their faults. Engel nails this paradox with witty and entertaining style.
The latter chapters on privatisation are particularly good, as they quickly summarise the tragedies and follies of one of the most spectactular Government policy failures in recent memory - without getting bogged down in details - think of it as a great companion to Christian Wolmar's "On The Wrong Line" if you can't be bothered with all the in-depth analysis.
An excellent read - it will brighten up any delayed journey!