The joy of rail travel in Scotland. Photograph by Islay McLeod
07.39 from Glasgow Central to Dalmuir
When I sit down on my first train of the day, the seat is still warm from the person who was occupying it last. It's a vaguely unsettling sensation, and the fluorescent lighting and stuffiness of the carriage begin to make me feel a little nauseous. I pick up one of the Metros lying strewn across the floor and flick straight to the Rush-Hour Crush: 'Gorgeous dark-haired guard/train-driver on Leeds platform 9B [York line] on August 4 at about 11.45am who helped me find my train for Barnsley on the Nottingham service. I came back to look for you and tell you it was love at first sight.'
The desperate charm of it all lifts my spirits momentarily on this bleak, soulless day in Glasgow. I look up for signs of life but virtually all of my fellow commuters have their heads bowed as they stare at their phones or read the Metro. One man wearing a baseball cap looks up briefly as he yawns before returning to his crossword.
We are one minute behind schedule when we pull into Hyndland station. I look up at the notice board and note that my connecting train to Dalmuir is running five minutes late. Just then, an announcement is made over the tannoy to confirm the delay and inform us that the middle carriage of the train is out of service. No one seems to care. There's around 40 or 50 people crammed onto the platform, each of us responding to the dreich weather in our own way.
I have a theory that you can tell a lot about someone from how they react to the rain. I like to think that the suits on the platform taking shelter beneath the station canopy or their own giant golf umbrellas are anxious about sitting through their first meeting of the day damp and cold, and are perhaps a little precious about their expensive clothes. Meanwhile, the more blasé among us stand defiantly in the rain, almost willing it down like shy imitations of the escape scene from 'Shawshank Redemption'. Clearly, we have no one to impress today.
08.18 from Dalmuir to Larkhall
I take a seat at the back of the carriage. Glancing around, I notice a used tissue stuffed into the space between the cushion and the wall of the train. Like a true germophobe, I consider moving, but opt instead to stay put and just avoid touching it.
According to figures released by Transport Scotland, this is the 10th busiest train service in Scotland. I can see why. With every new station, more and more people manage to push their way on board, but no one speaks. Astoundingly though, the conductor manoeuvres her way through the crowd, checking tickets as she goes.
The train virtually empties at Central Station. Now it hurls through an endless succession of grey, stopping at the occasional nondescript place to let the odd nondescript person get on or off. Ironically, the only sign of life comes from the synthetic voice that tells us where we are and where we're going.
10.03 from Larkhall to Hamilton
This is the first service of the day that has arrived on time, but everyone on the platform looks fairly miserable standing in the rain. The next station is called Merryton. The irony isn't lost on me.
10.12 from Hamilton to Cumbernauld
I've placed myself across from a young couple whose names, I learn from eavesdropping, are Amy and Jason. They look old enough to be my age, but their voices betray them. They must still be teenagers, but I can't be sure. Jason has his headphones plugged into his ears, but his arm around Amy's shoulder. He looks into her eyes for an uncomfortable length of time and then leans in to kiss her. She jerks her head away.
'Gonnae stop it,' she moans.
Visibly offended by her rejection, Jason pulls his arm from around her and slumps down into his seat with a heavy sigh. 'There's no need to get yersel' all upset again,' he says coldly. When the conductor comes around to inspect their tickets, they search their pockets for change.
'How much is it from Hamilton to Cumbernauld?' Amy asks.
'£4.30,' the conductor replies blandly.
'How much is a return?'
'For both?' they chorus.
'Jesus, how much did your mum give you?' Jason asks, turning to Amy.
'Fifteen,' she says into her purse. Together, they manage to scramble enough change for two single tickets. I wonder how they intend to get home, but I don't think they have thought that far ahead. As soon as the conductor disappears into the next carriage, Jason pulls a can of Tennent's from his pocket and takes a swig before passing it to Amy. When we arrive at Cumbernauld, he points to the can and hurriedly tells her, 'Down that. Ye need to down it on the train.' At that, Amy chugs whatever is left and bins the can on the platform. As they march across the grass and out of view, I wonder if they have any idea where they're going.
11.22 from Cumbernauld to Motherwell
I was hoping the ticket office at Cumbernauld station would offer some warmth from the autumnal August wind, but it seems colder in here than it does outside. Staring out onto the platform, I spot something moving from the corner of my eye. I look round and see a fairly large spider crawling over my rucksack. Goosebumps seize my body; I hate spiders. I flick him off and he flies across the room. I wish I could say I felt a little sorry for him, but I didn't. Four hours of riding the Scottish railway has turned me ruthless.
11.48 from Motherwell to Cambuslang
The train has arrived three minutes late, meaning that my estimated time of arrival at Cambuslang is now 12.08. As my next train to Hyndland is due to pull into Cambuslang at 12.09, I'm a little concerned I'm going to miss it. The conductor has come to check my ticket but I can't find it. I rummage through my purse for a minute or two but it's nowhere to be seen. 'I'll come back,' he tells me, but just as he's walking away, I find it. 'Oh, got it!' I cry triumphantly. He doesn't share my enthusiasm. Instead, he glances at the ticket, hands it back to me with half a smile and walks away. Maybe I should write into the Rush-Hour Crush and thank him for his patience.
12.09 from Cambuslang to Hyndland
The train has arrived one minute late. I wonder how much it costs Scotrail for every minute that their service is late. I decide to Google it and discover that, according to an online forum, it can cost £150 for every minute a train is late. I decide to believe it; it's online so it must be true.
12.34 from Hyndland to Milngavie
This is my ninth train today but so far only four have been on time. I step on board and immediately detect the unmistakeable smell of vomit. Someone has opened all of the windows in a vain attempt to disguise the stench, but now the air in the carriage is bitterly cold as well as fetid. Somewhere across the aisle a baby is wailing. I can empathise.
13.11 from Milngavie to Glasgow Central
My first and potentially last visit to Milngavie has been remarkably unremarkable.
13.49 from Glasgow Central to Largs
After spending the day running after trains and panicking that delays might interfere with my subsequent departures, I'm looking forward to grabbing an ice cream in Largs. The service is fairly quiet so I have my pick of seats. Scanning the carriage for the cleanest one, I'm astounded by how ugly the seat-fabric is. I once read that the manufacturers make them as ugly as possible to mask stains and vandalism, but if this design is supposed to disguise dirt, I'd hate to imagine what they look like undisguised. I realise how snobby I must look inspecting every seat on offer, so I resign myself to the best of a bad bunch. There are crumbs and little dust balls caught in the space where the back of the seat meets the base, but at least it smells reasonable.
15.53 from Largs to Glasgow Central
I eat my ice cream while leaning across a railing that overlooks the sea. It's hardly raining at all now and I think I can even see the sun peeking through the clouds: things are looking up. Walking back to the station, I catch the smell of something foul. I check the soles of my shoes but I haven't stepped in anything. When I tuck my hair behind my ear a few moments later the smell intensifies. Looking down at my arm, I see a sizeable patch of bird poo smeared into my favourite jumper. I sit feeling sorry for myself the whole way back to Glasgow. I don't even bother to inspect the seats this time. 'What's the point?' I think apathetically to myself. I am one with the seats.
As more and more bodies board the train the carriage grows increasingly humid, the smell of wet dog more pungent, but no one moans or says anything. We sit in silence, our heads bowed towards or phones and books. I can smell the bird faeces on my arm and, for once, am grateful for the anonymity of being another nondescript person on a nondescript journey home.