An unfamiliar journey

I’m trying to get to an event. It’s an evening event, part work and part leisure, and I really want to get there, especially since it’s the first in a regular series which I am hoping to attend. It involves a very straightforward train journey – one stop down the line, just five minutes away, then a 20-minute wait, then a change onto a branch line. The whole journey should take 40 minutes and this will be the first time that I have made it.

The first stage goes like clockwork, not least because it is against the main flow of commuters who are all busily going in the opposite direction. Twenty minutes is a length of time that, to me, just starts to become tedious when you need to kill it at a station. Especially one that has a running loop of announcements telling you where to stand, how to stack your luggage and what expression to have on your face. And possibly even taking it upon itself to advise on techniques for certain intimate sanitary procedures, should you require instructions. But, despite this minor annoyance, ten minutes have soon passed, and then 15.

And then it becomes clear that there is a problem of considerable magnitude going on in north London. As a result the commuter services on the lower section of the East Coast Main Line are, not to put too fine a point on it, completely buggered. The reason given is an overhead power fault. Whatever has caused the problem, the train operators seem to be having a very difficult time dealing with the consequences. The electronic departures sign shows my train delayed by just a few minutes. But those minutes pass and more are added, and more, and more. People on the platform start to become restless. My train becomes progressively later and later until it is shown as cancelled.

This, in itself, need not be a disaster. But it is not very helpful. The problem is that, since this is the first time I have visited the town I am trying to get to and the location of my event, I need to have every minute in hand that I possibly can.

The automatic announcement reel is interrupted with a real-time announcement informing us that our rescheduled service will now depart from another platform. It arrives, some 20 minutes late, and sits there, inanimate, with its doors open and its driver elsewhere. Meanwhile, everyone who wishes to board it rushes away from it, along the platform, up the stairs, crossing the breadth of the concourse and descending to the point furthest away from where it currently is. A railway official in a high-visibility jacket stands at the bottom of the stairs waving his arms and fending off enquiries. After a while, our train rolls gently out of the station and some distance up the line where it stops at a set of points. And sits.

A high-speed express goes through, then another, followed by a handful of local services, then a long pause without any trains at all. It is no longer possible to imagine that the train is merely being held at a signal in order to await a suitable gap before crossing the tracks, or that the driver needs to walk through from one end to the other before rushing back to the newly-assigned platform, or to make any other excuses for it. Our train is stranded outside the station. People begin to get anxious. They make mobile phone calls to relatives and acquaintances, look around in vain for someone to ask, and wonder aloud how they are going to get home.

Finally, finally, when our feelings of frustration and complete powerlessness in the face of the train company’s whims have reached an exquisite pitch, the announcement comes that the train will soon be leaving from its reassigned platform. Nothing happens for a while then slowly, slowly, it crosses the tracks, trundles down the opposite set and pulls up at its allocated platform. The passengers climb aboard and the train waits a while, presumably waiting for a timetable slot to arise that it can fit into. Then it’s off along the branch line, travelling fast, but not fast enough for me since it is now some 50 minutes behind its advertised departure time. Somewhere in the distance, my event is now under way without me.

It takes 13 minutes for the train to travel two stops. I leave the station and rush blindly into the town, taking a few wrong turns and making one serendipitous discovery of a short cut that saves me about 15 minutes. Thus it is that I arrive a mere half an hour late for my appointment which is embarrassing but recoverable. The event is all I had hoped for – interesting, educational, professionally useful. I express my intention to come to the next one, leave and wander back to the station congratulating myself on having got something out of an evening that had started badly. I arrive with about 10 minutes to spare before the train I plan to catch is due to leave.

And then the automatic announcements and the electronic departure boards reveal that the train is cancelled, apparently due to the ill-effects of the earlier power failure, which has presumably left all the company’s rolling stock in the wrong places. The next train will be in 35 minutes’ time. It’s now relatively late in the evening, although evenings are not particularly drawing in yet, and I could have done without a 35-minute wait on a sparsely-populated railway platform. But wait I must, so I settle down on a bench with a couple of other hardy souls who need to travel on the same route. The minutes tick by and after about 25 of them have passed the cancellation announcement for the next train is made.

Now I am getting seriously worried. Late evening, at a station some distance from home, with no simple alternative method of travel, and no idea what to do, far beyond the point where taking a taxi is an affordable proposition. I am reminded of endless past problems commuting in and out of London – but at least there you had alternatives, buses or more than one rail or Tube line. Here it’s the train or nothing and currently I have no idea how I am getting home.

Luckily the station is staffed and there is someone to ask. When the third train is cancelled (that’s an hour and a half’s worth of trains) the attendant gains permission to put us in a taxi and have us driven back to the nearest mainline station at the train company’s expense. Thus begins a long, cramped journey with strangers through the suburban sprawl of a newtown – but at least we are on our way, even if no-one can work out what to do with their legs. Other people fiddle with books, periodicals and laptops but I am just exhausted from all of this and stare out of the window as the countryside is replaced by suburbs and then, finally, the town centre.

From the mainline station I am able to ring home and explain why a journey that should have taken 40 minutes has taken nearly three hours – and arrange for a lift from the local station. I have spent more than three travelling to and from a supposedly enjoyable event at which I spent just one hour and missed a third of, leaving me feeling foolish for the rest of it.

Will I go next time? I want to, I really do. Question is, does this happen regularly down this line or was it a one-off? Using public transport, will it actually be possible?