Monday, 14 February 2011

The Last Train to Clarksville - or Anywhere...

Those old enough to remember the days of train travel, before the triumph of privatisation, may recall the television commercial featuring Sir Jimmy Savile in which the public were encouraged to take the strain out of long-distance journeys by taking a British Rail train.

If, unlike me, you own a car and like your own company, the only reason you might choose public over private transport is likely to be for the purpose of helping the environment. Take issue with that as you may, lots of ordinary people do that because they believe, in good faith, that care of the environment is their responsibility. Some of them even listen to earnest eco advocates like Prince Charles.

Having given up driving in 1989 - my car kept getting stolen - I used buses and trains ever since. On Saturday, in a burst of pre-Valentine's Day passion, I was due to meet the woman of my dreams at Kings Cross in London at round about 9.45am. We used to go out when we were 17, had recently fallen in love, but had not met for 44 years.

That's why I got out of bed at 4.15 on Saturday morning, to make sure I caught the 6.20am Grand Central from Bradford to King's Cross. I trusted the train to get me there at the appointed, time-tabled time. Having made this journey in late October to visit my sister, I had no reason to suspect things might be different.

I arrived at 6am. No train in sight. Alarmed, I made inquiries, to be told that the train had been cancelled due to engineering works at Doncaster. There was one at about 8.30am, which got to King's Cross at 1.15pm. That was no good. I was advised by an apologetic station staff man to take the next train to Leeds and buy a ticket for the 7am East Coast service to London. Which I did, at a cost of £89.50 for a return.

At Leeds I was told that, due to engineering works at Doncaster, the 7am was cancelled. The one at 8.05am stopped at Huntingdon where a bus would take me to another station for a local through train. That was no good. I was directed through the barrier to the information office, where four people in uniform were having a natter. Only when I banged by bag down on the counter did one of them look up.

My best option, apparently, was to go to Doncaster and wait for a London train from York or Edinburgh. By this time I was in a state of near panic. Not having a mobile phone (my fault entirely), I couldn't alert my true love to the chaos on the railways.

On the Doncaster platform, a large woman with ginger hair asked if I would mind taking part in a 'customer survey'. Although I was the very kind of person she should have questioned, she retreated when I intimated that my day was being ruined by the railways.

By chance I glanced at the electronic information board to see there was a 7.34am East Midlands train to St Pancras, next door to King's Cross. None of the rail staff I had spoken to had suggested this alternative, in spite of their computers and radio links. I boarded this train and got to London at about 11.20am in a state of extreme anxiety. I had to do breathing exercises on the way in to calm down.

Fortunately, the light of my life had had the bottle to wait, trusting me to turn up. I collapsed into her arms and was virtually speechless for a minute or more, as the tension eased. But for her I think I might have had a turn for the worse.

We had a happy time together until the time came for us to go our separate ways. Eventually, I and several thousand others, lots of them England supporters who had been to Twickenham, stuffed on board the 6.55pm East Coast train to Leeds. Standing room only. It was quite alarming. The 5pm and 6pm trains North had been cancelled, presumably due to engineering works at Doncaster, in spite of the fact that at least 150,000 people had converged on the capital for matches at Arsenal and Twickenham.

Departure time came and went and still the train hadn't moved. A voice over the pa system told us in broken English that departure would be delayed by at least 30 minutes, due to the late arrival of the guard. We were given regular updates on his estimated time of arrival. Turned out he was travelling south on another East Coast train that had been delayed two hours at Doncaster, due to a householder who had thoughtlessly chopped a tree down in his garden that had fallen across power lines and across the railway track.

Forty-five minutes late, our train got moving, only to stop before Stevenage, after Stevenage and several points between right up to Doncaster, where it stopped for about 30 minutes or more. The attitude of passengers around me was remarkable, especially the group of England rugby fans from Newark. They chatted and laughed, cheerfully taking the tension out of a stressful situation. They bought strangers drinks and, all in all, kept up the spirits of all within earshot. They performed the job that the train crew were being paid to do and didn't.

One or two people for whom the situation evidently proved too much had a sneaky smoke in the toilets. The official reaction was to announce that anyone caught smoking would be reported to British Transport Police. Meanwhile, just after Peterborough, we were told the bar was out of beer.

We got into Leeds at midnight, after all connecting services had stopped. Passengers who had missed trains were directed to approach station staff for help. No one met us off the train. About 50 of us went to the customer services office to inquire, politely, what was happening. A squat man declared it was nothing to do with him. Someone from East Coast would be along to sort it out, although he couldn't say when. After receiving a rather civilised bollocking from a man waiting to get back to Hornby, this Jobsworth simply buggered off, leaving us to it.

A decent chap in a red East Coast cap did arrive and sorted out taxis for us. It took a while, but what impressed me was the kindness of these people to one another. We all did our best to be helpful rather than irate. Even the chap in the cap was thanked for doing his best. I got home at 1am, exhausted from the emotions of the day and the stress of the journey.

If a train is an hour late you can claim for your ticket money back. I've done that. But supposing my day had been completely wrecked by the mixture of official incompetence and indifference that I experienced: how was that damage going to be repaired?

During the big snows, thousands of people had even worse problems at British airports. I gather passengers are regarded as "self-loading baggage" by airport staff. The rugby fans were saying that next time they ventured South to support England they would be going by car. Can you blame them?

Of course the rail companies would say that updated information about delays and cancellations had been put up on their website, implying it was the fault of ticket-holding passengers for failing to check this information before setting out. This is known as passing the buck - having already taken the bucks from trusting fools like me.

If this was a microcosm of the true state of this nation, God help us. It was clear to me that the majority of people paid to run things efficiently weren't bothered, while a stream of useless or patronising information was constantly relayed over tannoy systems to frustrated passengers. In spite of being entangled in a nightmare of regulations, warnings and idiotic announcements, most people remained robust and resilient, laughing at officials who, bound by more rules and regulations, were unable to adapt flexibly to a bad situation.

Every day we are lectured by the likes of Prince Charles on how we must lower our standard of living to benefit others in the Third World. The last time I saw HRH in person, he was making his way through Bradford's Forster Square station with a handful of officials, en route to his rather large private train. He made a joke to commuter passengers being held back from theirs until his train had left.

I very much doubt that His Royal Highness will ever find himself in the predicament of his future long-suffering, train-travelling subjects.


Anonymous said...

But was she still the woman of your dreams,Jim, after 44 years of separation?

Jim Greenhalf said...

She wasn't in 1966, but she is now.

Anonymous said...


Brian said...

I used to travel a lot by trains and planned in the expectation of disruption of services being the norm. Anything approaching the timetable was a bonus. Highly valued people at stations were not the "customer service" staff who were often in the dark as much as the PB Passengers, but train spotters at the end of the platform who possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of alternatives. They have been exiled to protect us from terrorism.
The problem lies with the senior managers who simply do not care as long as stats can be manipulated to earn their performance bonuses.
Great blog.

Anonymous said...

I would think that owing to the state of your country and paying one hundred plus pounds to venture into ignorance ( there's not yours ) is it not time to invest in some form of personal transport ? Doing my bit to help the tomatoes grow I drive a 550 hp car (1998 vintage ) that last year cost me over 12.000 km 2,700 euros (including tax insurance gas etc )

john in cheshire said...

To hell with the environment. I want cheap fuel and I want it now. I want cheap public transport, that pays for itself and if it doesn't that scrap it. I want common sense in everything and not adherence to some half-witted ideology that cost me more than I want to pay.

Tomrat said...

Excellent article Mr. Greenhalf; I was just directed here from the good Dr. North and, hoping you dont mind, linked to the article on my own blog.

Tomrat said...

For the record I avoid the train wherever possible and blame a combination of the Beeching axe, the annexation of the private rail system and the irresponsible faux-re-privatisation they did which has led to our present darkness of cronyism and poor service.

Cant last.

Orde said...

Yes this is a microcosm of modern Britain.


Anonymous said...

Remember the whole rail network was private from inception to the middle of the twentieth century. We suffer from governments manipulating the folly of government.