We were going to a wedding near Plymouth, so we booked through train tickets well in advance, and first class for more room and comfort, on the 10.17 from Diss in Norfolk – one and a half hours to London Liverpool Street. Once we were nicely installed and comfortable the pleasant voice of a lady conductor told us that we were to be ‘re-trained’ at Colchester because torrential rain the preceding night had affected the main line. So we scrambled, with our luggage, up and over to the other platform, where we slid randomly into uncomfortable seats amid everyone’s piled up luggage. This local train set off at a leisurely trundle, including an unscheduled stop, round Marks Tey and other stations towards Shenfield (whence, hopefully, to Liverpool Street). The comfortable one hour’s transfer time to get from Liverpool Street to Paddington gradually eroded. It was a relief from tension when we reached the time at which catching our connection was now entirely impossible.
Our train had eventually got onto the main line to Liverpool Street and seemed to be running normally when it stopped suddenly. The driver told us we had a red light: when someone told him what it was about, he would tell us. A few minutes later he said “There’s a problem with the points, and they are sending someone to check them.” A bit later he said ” They know what is wrong with the points, and they are sending for a man with a spanner” More minutes passed. “They’ve now told me to reverse the train back to Manor Park, then they’ll decide what to do next, so you’ll see me walking through the train to the back cab.”. So he passed through, after which we reversed in stately fashion back down the line to the station.
“I’m going to open the doors to let some fresh air in, but they may fix the points any time so that we can go forward, so don’t get out here, unless you want to.” A longer pause.
“After all that, it’s probably better for the completion of your journeys, and for my sanity, if you leave the train now, cross the platform, and take the tube – I’ve checked with Transport for London – will you honour their tickets? – Yes.” So we gathered our rucksack, luggage and wedding present and humped up and over again. We got into Liverpool Street at 14.10. Whether the train we left at Manor Park ever made it to London I don’t know.
We crossed by tube to Paddington where there can a long walk to the platforms, depending on which tube line you cross by. In the old days there were porters: nowadays an increasingly elderly population has to carry and trudge. The walks get longer. We can do this now, but in a few years? Fortunately, though we missed our booked connection, Great Western waved us through, and we slid into comfortable seats on the 15. 15 to Penzance. And settled down for an uneventful journey
Except that there were non-scheduled stops at Dawlish and Dawlish Warren. And then. just before Plymouth, the train stops. The impeccably voiced train conductor informs us that there is a cow on the line – : “Actually, cows.” Armed with a flag, he descends to shoo them off, and when he gets back in we proceed towards Plymouth, being told en route that passengers for the Looe line are to descend here, and take provided road transport, because they will by now have missed the connection from Liskeard.
“A collision with a cow could have serious consequences,” the conductor continues, “including possible derailment, so we will have to run slowly for a bit, until we know that we are well clear. Please don’t lean out of the windows here, you can easily catch a branch or something on the way, and endanger your eyes. I have had a number of injuries on this train, so do please be sensible.”
At last we get out at Plymouth Station, to find that we are penned in a long queue shuffling out through only one turn-style (while several station operatives lean on rails and watch impassively as if it is nothing to do with them). Our tickets have already been checked, several times – why is this happening to us? We’re very late, and tired, and we want to get out!
Most of the railway workers we encountered on this trip were diligent, helpful and friendly. They wanted to do a good job, they wanted to be proud of their enterprise. But the overall organisation let them (and us) down endlessly, just as it does in the NHS, of which more in a later blog.
Emergency has to be planned for. Rainstorms happen, just like snow, and leaves on the line; track and machinery need maintenance, as does trackside fencing, trees and hedges. All this means labour, labour means wages, more wages means reduced profits for railway companies, but better service and therefore greater profit (or lower losses) for citizens of this nation. I imagine most of us would prefer the railway system to be a national treasure, run by staff who are not only properly paid, but proud of their institution and anxious for it to give a sterling service to the person and the nation. Esprit de corps during the Olympics was wonderful to watch – but it shouldn’t be only for athletes..