Sunday, 27 November 2011

Trains of Thought

By Richard Morley.

John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans”. Well, I have made a plan. It faces me from the cork board on the wall behind my computer. It is a printed spread sheet telling me where I have to be from now until the end of the year. My life has suddenly become more than busy.

Too busy, I am afraid to maintain this blog in the way I would wish. Gone is the time I could devote to the visits and research I love to do. I haven't stopped completely as life always brings new questions to be answered, new places to see and wonder about.

This year I have visited parts of Spain very new to me. I have experienced new delights and met new people. I have tried new food and learned more about local cultures. All of which are recorded for future blog posts and I will try to find the time to write something about them.

One chance encounter led to a twenty five percent increase in my teaching duties – and took me to new areas of Madrid I had not seen before. I have written about Madrid's public transport system, it's wonderful Metro, both heavy and light, and its convenient bus service, before. One thing I have only mentioned in passing is Madrid's local commuter rail network known as the “Cercanias” - the system that brings thousands of workers into the city each day from the neighbouring suburbs and towns. It was this rail network that was attacked by terrorists on March 11th 2004, that took the lives of nearly two hundred people. If the metro and buses are the arteries of the city of Madrid, then the Cercanias are its lungs and throat, bringing into the city the “alimentación” that keeps it alive.

I have only occasionally used the Cercanias up to now. Now I have to count myself as a regular commuter, well, on Tuesdays and Thursdays at least.

I however, go in the other direction to most commuters. Madrid continues to expand. The cost of establishing a business in the centre of town is high and companies are setting up on the fringes. My job takes me from one office to another. I spend quite a lot of my time on the move. I enjoy this. I wouldn't like to be set in one place all the time. For me, each day's commute is in a different direction. But this new job is taking me, twice a week, to the very limits of the city.

Yet its cost to me is the time it takes to travel. In monetary terms the fares here are so ridiculously low I can pay for my journey with the change I get from buying a pack of cigarettes.

The first railway line of the system, and indeed the first anywhere in Spain, was the line that ran from Madrid to Aranjuez, forty eight kilometres south of the city, which was completed in 1851. From those early beginnings the Cercania system has now grown to almost three hundred and fifty kilometres of track reaching out over most of the greater “Comunidad” of Madrid, and one line takes you into neighbouring Castille y Leon.

On the way to the mountains north of Madrid.

You can find a map of the system here.

Once a diverse amalgamation of different companies the Cercanias were nationalised, like all the other railway companies, in 1941, and come under the control of RENFE, (Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles). Some of the local lines were narrow gauge and continued to be so until 1970.

Unlike the commuter trains of other cities, the Cercanias do not stop at terminal stations,leaving the journey to work to be completed by other modes of transport. The Cercanias come right into the heart of the city, underground, and completely hidden from the sight of tourist who might not even suspect the system exists.

Ok, that last statement is not as true as is used to be. Following four long years of tunnelling and construction, the Cercanias arrived in the Puerta del Sol, the most central point in the city. Visitors may well have noticed the signs directing those using the Metro to descend even deeper into what has been called “Europe's largest man-made cavern”, but they will have passed through towards their subway line and not really given it a thought.

Similarly, if you have ever changed metro lines at Nuevos Ministerios, and you will have if you have travelled into the city by metro from the airport, you might not have noticed that part of that sprawling mess is a very extensive series of platforms for the Cercanias. From there you can travel south to Aranjuez or north to Colmenar Viejo. You can now, if you wanted to avoid the four stops on line 8, take the Cercania to terminal four at Barajas.

They have been promising us this direct link from the airport to the city centre for years. Up to very recently the only way, using public transport, into the city has been via the metro, with at least one, sometimes two changes of line depending on the destination, or on the regular, but subject to traffic, shuttle bus. Now we have a direct line Cercania – BUT IT GOES TO THE WRONG PLACE!
The new line, C1, from the airport passes through Nuevos Ministerios, but from there, instead of going to Sol, where most tourists will want to go,being a) central, and b) within walking distance of hundreds of hotels and hostels, and c) connects to three Metro lines, it passes through Recoletos, which has none of those three advantages mentioned. In fact Recoletos is pretty useless unless you work nearby. Sol, on the other hand is the most used station in Madrid. So why RENFE, why? The main advantage of running a direct link from the airport to the city centre has been lost. And Recoletos connects with nothing. If you alight there, you will have to carry your bags three hundred metres down to Cibeles where you can catch a bus or a single metro line. On behalf of several friends who visit Madrid often I feel annoyed at this stupid bit of routing.
Oh, and you can only take the Cercanias from Terminal 4. So if you arrive at 1,2 or 3, won't have the option anyway.

But if you do arrive at terminal 4 and take the Cercanias, you will either have to change at Chamartin station, (as recommended by RENFE) Nuevos Ministerios, as you did before, to Cercanias lines C3 or C4, or travel on to Atocha to change to line 1 of the metro – possible the worst and most over-crowded line on the network. At great expense, nothing has been improved.

Be that as it may, the Cercanias are clean, cheap and are only crowded during rush hour. They are also quiet. Totally electrified and running on the smoothest track imaginable, you can read or listen to music in peace.
The inside of one of the carriages. Obviously this is not rush Hour. 

They also run on time – and in the mornings, very frequently. On the route I use, at least, a train leaves for my destination every ten minutes. And I always get a seat!

Changing the subject:

I was attending a meeting with other teachers recently. All of them were reporting, like me, if they wanted it, an increase in workload. We may well be in a recession, but language teaching seems to be hardly affected. It's not just English. French and German are also, it seems, needed by Spanish businessmen and women. Not all companies have been affected by the crisis. They might not be enjoying the boom times of recent years, and this is probably, and not too late, making them reflect on their marketing strategies. The companies I teach at are telling me something very interesting: it is not a priority for their employees to pass an exam in English. They want their employees to close the deal, sell, get the contract signed, advertise and network – and whether this is done grammatically or not is not important, so long as communication is established.

Grammar teachers – don't send me hate mail. I will state here and now that conjugation and syntax are vitally important when communication needs to be precise. Dates and terms of agreements have to definitely understood on both sides. What these employers mean is they want to concentrate on practical communication. And if that means slipping out of the grammatical and into the vernacular, then that is what they want.

Luckily, that is exactly what I teach. Coming from a technical / scientific background that morphed into management seems to have worked in my favour. The business student wants useful language skills and I have lost count of the number of times one of my students has commented that vocabulary within that business context that I introduce into my lessons was never taught to them at any “academic” language establishment. And they wonder why?

Business English (BE), English for Special purposes (ESP), and other forms of useful language skills should be our priority if we have those types of students. Get away from the academic and into the realms of the practical. And if you don't know the vocabulary, you can learn it. In recent months I have taught British and American Legal, Accountancy, Marketing, Technical and Scientific, (where I had to learn all the terms needed in meteorology incidentally!) and Financial English. In business, a basic vocabulary, while useful, is not enough. And employers here know it.

In the light of that, one of the teachers I met with thinks that the market for business English will remain strong for at least the next decade. That should see me into my dotage nicely!

Another change of subject:

I bought Parsnips and Brussels sprouts a couple of days ago. A sure sign that Christmas is nearly with us. After the aforementioned teachers' meeting, I wondered down to the Plaza España and lunched on Chestnuts

The Christmas illuminations have been turned on and nativity scenes (belensare starting to appear in shop windows. I love this time of year in Madrid. Everyone seems to be even more friendly than normal and the Christmas parties, at least for me, begin next weekend.

I just hope I can find the time to enjoy them!