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Thursday, 9 June 2011

choo choo

The platform was dense with those waiting. Either to meet what are tediously referred to as Loved Ones or to catch the train that wasn’t there, to be shunted further into the bowels of the country. It should have arrived at just gone 9 and it was now half past ten.
The guard was trotting up and down, loving it, bobbing here and there, totally unable to dispense meaningful advice and utterly in his element. His semaphore paddles bounced useless on his thighs. The information board kept edging forward, without explanation, the arrival estimate of the train, clicking it just out of reach.

I was waiting for my Loved One who was returning from Lords. We’d been a week in Cornwall and he had ducked out early to watch a spot of cricket.
“Any idea why it’s so late?” I asked the guard
“Delayed,” he said, thrilled. Which cleared everything up.
“My husband texted to say that the train was stuck in the middle of nowhere,” I said.
“Oh no, it won’t be there,” he said. “It’ll be somewhere else.”
Across on the other platform, a solitary person waited. His face an uneasy sweaty mix of anxiety and boredom. He smoothed his hands on the long ruffles of his long skirt and crossed and uncrossed and re-crossed his legs. Perhaps the Victoriana bootees were uncomfortable.
“’s fucking shite, that’s what it is,” a man to my left said.
“’s fucking outrageous. Orra comploine.”
E texted. “Moving backwards.”
I told the guard. “Ah,” he said happily, “That’s Gloucester for you.”
The chap in the skirt flounced off, holding his hem high up the steps. I half hoped he had plans of breaking into the car - would a man in a long dress fancy a spot of joy-riding in a Toyota? It would be one way of getting rid of it.

When E finally got in he was smiling with relief – we few, we happy few. “Nearly a stabbing at Swindon,” he said. “People were going crazy. One man insisting on a taxi. We all bonded over our compensation forms.”
The unspoken chill in the air was that the compensation is delivered as vouchers for more rail travel. Surely no one wants to get on a train twice?

The last time I went on a train I missed it. There was a problem – on-going, but unannounced at the station – on the tube en route to Paddington so, after being stuck without explanation in a tunnel for 20 minutes, we were disgorged at High St Ken.
“’s fucking outrageous!” shouted a girl. “Sorry,” she said, catching my eye. “But it’s so crap. I’m ashamed of this country. We get these people, clients, they come here and I’m ashamed. Third bloody world. It’s not like this in China.”
When she talked about work her right hand bent out – I understood later that a major part of her job, when not stressing about foreigners’ perception of the infrastructure of our transport system, was collecting dry cleaning.
Her hand shot out in anticipation of invisible clothes hangers. “’m not even meant to be in today, ‘smy day off. But she,” her dry cleaning hand jabbed, “she can’t bloody work out which car to get from the car-pool without me going across London and showing her. Christ!” She lapsed into hopeless boss speak, “‘Tee-nah, if it’s not too much trouble, darling, it’s all so confusing!’ Fuck. It’s my bloody day off! And which of us is on a hundred K?? Hey, let’s get a taxi. I’ll pay.”

So me, and her and my wheeled luggage and her invisible dry cleaning cut a swathe through the crowds and we caught a cab and he drove like the clappers and I got to Paddington Just In Time, Tina’s cries of “RUN!” speeding me on …. down the concourse, round the corner, up the platform, to see the train, to run some more …. to be denied a foot in the carriage.
The guard, a piggy, just stood there. “Door’s shut now,” he said with a little smirk. “Health and Safety.”
“Please open the door,” I said.
“No,” he said. Like that. Just, "No."
I stared at him through the window and he stared at me for nearly a minute and then the train rolled off.
I cried.
For I knew that this being England, that common sense had long left town. Presumably hitching or on a moped. It was my son's birthday and I was due back to make cake and I wasn't going to make it, in either sense of the word. In buying a ticket, I hadn’t simply bought the right to travel from London to Cheltenham but I had availed myself of ”a product,” being one seat on one train only. Everything is product now, from pensions to shampoo, bleach to trains.

My friend Susan had been on a train. She’d had a 24 hour clock confusion and got on the 7pm train rather than the 17:00 one. She is 52 and the carriage was nearly empty. She was relieved to sit down. The guard all but elbowed her out, chivvying her to alight at Swindon, to go to a cash point, to draw out £50, to wait an hour and to buy another ticket for this leg of the journey.
She apologised and pointed out that this train was cheaper than the one for which she had bought a ticket, that it was a simple mistake, that she was tired and the train was empty. It was a dark and windy night. It was November. She is tiny, and beautifully spoken, but lacking a credit card.
“You’ll have to get out and go to the cash point,” he said. “Your ticket isn’t valid.”
Her one fellow passenger said "May I?" and reached for his wallet, and bought another ticket for her. The kindness of strangers stepping in when the system is heartless and happy to throw you to the wolves.

I went to the help, ha ha, desk, heart a-sunk.
“You’ll have to get a new ticket,” the man said, “This one’s no longer valid. ’s too late,” he said. “That ticket was only valid for that train. Need to buy a new one now.”
“But it wasn’t really my fault I missed it,” I said. “I allowed nearly an hour to get from Sloane Square to Paddington. It’s six stops, I thought it would be enough. It took ten minutes the other way yesterday. I could drive from Cheltenham to Oxford in an hour. There was a fault on the line.”
The man couldn’t care less about that. I don’t know why I bothered. He punched my Oyster card and shook his head. “Insufficient journey time allowed.”
There was further nonsense since my seat reservation ticket was missing somehow rendering my ticket even more invalid, and I couldn't make him see that since the reservation was for a train which was now somewhere near Reading it surely couldn't be THAT important but apparently it was and it just showed the customer service man how very foolish I was and how very little I know about valid tickets. “Nah, you’ll have to go and buy another ticket.”

A serpentine queue, like the desperate line for returns at IKEA, was threaded through the ticket hall.
He all but flicked me away with a dismissive paw. As flies to wanton boys are we.

A little lad in a high vis jacket trudged like my shadow towards the monstrous Stalinist queue. I became aware that he was there and that he was frowning and that he kept muttering, "That should be plenty of time."
"I know," I whimpered prettily, eye to the main chance.
“You allowed plenty of time,” he said again.
He shot a glance over at the grim kipper of a customer service manager then shimmied with resolve. Chest out, shoulders back. He queue-jumped me ahead of 60 people trapped in queue-hell and he got my ticket re-stamped and I travelled home without having to shell out £70.

It was a massive triumph over the Kafka in Wonderland bureaucracy of Modern Britain, although it’s never that simple since there was more nonsense in Bristol (I had to go the long way round) where all the boards and signs said that the connection up to Cheltenham left from platform one and, lo, there IS no platform one. And no-one who worked there seemed to know anything about it.
"Oh, that'll mean platform 3," said a weary passenger. But of course.

I was telling my friend Simon about it later, he doesn't get out much. "What was the problem?" he said, quite reasonably, "you missed the train. Couldn’t you just get the next one" Poor innocent. Has no idea that life isn't like that anymore.

So we don’t want the vouchers. But it seems incumbent upon us to claim them. Apparently they pretend not to receive the forms, so the Swindon Band of Brothers were telling each other to scan them in, then they can't be "lost". The games we play. The games we have to play. The good times ended with Thomas the Tank Engine.


Exmoorjane said...

Aaaghh.. I read this cos I wanted to calm down, to laugh, to feel slightly more at one with the normal world but, but, but...just aaaghhh....the petty bureaucracy, the sheer impotence...the wanting to scream and the act of crying. Too much. Too much. I hate them. Hate them all so much. Apart from Tina. Poor Tina of the outstretched arm. It was Tina, wasn't it? xxxx

Milla said...

Yeah, bit of a frustrated rant this one. It was Tina, such a saint, so sweet. I know it's a cliche to slag off the trains, but God knows, the few times I encounter it's bloody disastrous!

Leigh said...

I too have had my share of Trains. And Delays. And Customer-let's-see-how-bad-we-can-make-this-Service. But you get 'em everywhere. Those People. Small People they are. In brain and (imho) probably willy-size too.

Have found smashing staff at times, and must sing up for them. Like the guard who told me once, "It's called the 'Price Buster' love. We can't sell it to you unless you ask for it by name. So don't forget. Price Buster. Now, that'll be £11.40, please." She saved me a fiver - not only on that journey, but every subsequent time I've made the same journey. That's been a lot of fivers now.

But yeah, the small-willy brigade make me fume. God rot 'em.

Thanks for posting. Love your writing style. Sorry for long comment ;o)

Milla said...

thanks, Leigh, and will remember that. Because that, of course, is another thing, the arcane naming of Products - HTF are we to know what the silly things are called! My little lad in the high vis was a goodie. Dared not name him lest he gets the sack :(

Fennie said...

For about nine years I travelled each day on the train to go to school, an experience which presumably couldn't happen today - or could it? Do they treat differently people with season tickets (or with high visibility jackets come to that). But yes, we've all been there done that had to plead to have the ticket stamped and changed, forced to confess and apologise for some train being cancelled or delayed and then feeling hopelessly grateful when we are actually allowed to travel even though there aren't any seats. Still, as they used to say 'Even a journey by the Eastern Counties Railway has to come to en end sometime.'

Expat mum said...

I still feel like I'm dreaming when, here in the US of A, you run for a bus you've missed, and the driver actually stops and lets you on. There's none of that slowing down to make the punter think she has a chance, then pulling away with a mean-spirited glance through the rear view mirror.
Sales assistants (in shops and train stations) will gladly tell you about the latest deals, and yesterday while buying mosquito-proof clothing, the lovely young man went back to the till desk to get a coupon to scan, which saved me about $15 on one item. I still sometimes have to pinch myself.

Frances said...

Milla, when I first started travelling over to the UK and riding the trains, it was pre Mrs Thatcher. The trains seemed to turn up as expected, and often had cars so vintage that I could imagine myself traveling in some film.

I would buy a ticket, usually with cash, and usually much cheaper than such a journey would cost over here in the States. The departure and arrival times seemed to be on the mark.

Then I do remember realizing that a change had come. Since my travels were still on my holiday visits, I could be a bit laissez-faire about the timing, but I realized that predictability was no longer a force.

I particularly remember one Saturday at Paddington, waiting for a train to Oxford. Trains seemed to come and go, the departures/arrivals posting board never quite caught up with any real live experience of those of us in the station.

Some arriving trains never even "docked" at the station before taking off again.

I did eventually get on a train and shared some laughs with some fellow travelers who hoped to be bound for Stratford. The train did get to Oxford, but my return trip to London was another adventure entirely, involving buses, delays, drama.

As always, Milla, your writing is a delight.


Bluestocking Mum said...

I'm howling at your last line, Milla :D :D

I should send Hubby over to read your blog. He does the London run a couple of times a week and has some horror stories.

As if life's not already stressful enough, imagine having to go to work every day AND having to travel by train. Shudders at thought.


Milla said...

yes, a small (OK, large) part of me, BSM, realises how wet this is cf all those brave souls battling daily with the beast of public transport. What really stresses is the arbitrary nature of the changing rules, the sort of cheating aspect now that ticket is product, the wilful obfuscation. Oh well, once on, it's a joy. Someone else at the wheel? Oh yes. Am glad your experiences haven't scarred you or put you off, Frances.

Edward said...

What I can't bear is the hope. You book your ticket, you specify the "Quiet" carriage, and all the way there some hateful flapjack is jawing away on her mobile phone, the ringtone of which is Abba's greatest crime against music. You can't say anything in case she's Mrs Stabby McStab. Then you put your earphones in and your next-door neighbour glares at you on account of the practically inaudible level of hiss escaping.

Top blog as usual, and thanks for coming to pick me up. My, how we sank that first glass when we got home!

Anonymous said...

I've just booked and delivered return tickets for me and Amy to travel from Newcastle to Cambridge. There's 2 changes on the outward journey but only one change on the return journey! Also, I could have gone for just one change which would have taken us from Newcastle to Kings Cross, then back on ourselves to Cambridge. I find that very confusing! Also, as we are both classed as disabled, I could have got us both a disability railcard at £20 each for one year. But you can't use both at the same time and as I'd have only saved £30 on the journey, I'd have still been a tenner out of pocket, should I have bought 2 railcards! Again, very confusing. Fortunately I don't use the train usually, this will be the first one I've been on for 10 years! Not absolutely sure I'm looking forward to it!

CJ xx

Pondside said...

It's like science fiction to me, here in train-less British Columbia. There's one train, once a week, that comes across the country from Toronto, taking four days. It's for tourists - not for anyone really needing to get from Toronto to Vancouver.

Muddling Along said...

I think I could almost cope with the delays if the staff I dealt with were less jobsworth and more understanding and helpful - they really are the straw that breaks the camels' back

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