Two tales of train-shaped chaos…

WHEN I leave this ledge, it is usually by car, although one spot of work in York is reachable by trusty old bicycle.

One advantage of driving to work – the only one – is you don’t have to catch the train. This has been a year of train horror stories, some in the south and around London, others here in the north, where Northern Rail continues to frustrate and infuriate commuters or anyone else foolish enough to think travelling by train might be a good idea.

Here are two train tales, neither connected to work or indeed Northern Fail (as it’s known in these parts), but both suggestive of the everyday chaos of train travel.

Recently we had a long weekend in Poland. Everything on the outward trip ran smoothly, from the Metro to Newcastle Airport, the Ryanair flight to Modlin Airport outside Warsaw, to the friendly and efficient taxi driver in her minibus.

Getting to Newcastle was the challenging bit.

We’d booked on a train at just after 4pm and the board showed two at around that time. The one we should have been on edged ahead of the other one, then fell behind, then went ahead again, in a weird time-travelling race. Then one train arrived and there was no way of telling if it was the ‘right’ one. We ran along the platform to ask the guard, who said it was, and we hopped on. We couldn’t get to our seats because the way was blocked by a tea trolley that had run out of water. And the carriage was rammed.

We had to stand in the crowded carriage, next to a large bin bag full of rubbish. Our friends were somewhere else on the overcrowded train. A young mother with two small children was close to tears. She’d been travelling for a few hours, put off one train and then not allowed to use her tickets on others. She was heading to Darlington to meet her mother and would have about an hour there before having to turn around again.

We saw her later, on the platform, being hugged by her mother. We saw her because we were on that platform, too. The announcement came as the over-filled train pulled in: “We would like to apologise but this train will be terminating at Darlington.”

The disembodied voice advised us to rush to the next Newcastle train, but when we did that, we discovered our tickets weren’t valid on Cross Country trains. We had to wait for the train formerly known as Virgin, and that entailed hanging around for 40 minutes as it was late.

We eventually arrived in Newcastle around two hours after leaving York; early the next morning, we would fly to Poland in around the same time.

One week later, I was at Leeds Station after an early Christmas meal out with the journalism lecturers at Leeds Trinity University. We’d been to the Town Hall Tavern, a pub stocked with Timothy Taylor beer, and the food was good.

Then it was late and I was ready for home. The train was due at 10.52pm and perhaps 30 or 40 people were on the platform. All had made the mistake of assuming the departures board was telling the truth. Bang on time, a train pulled in, but it was in darkness.

Then a station employee said in passing: “Oh, the York train is on platform 16-and-a-half” (or something), so 30 or 40 people hoping to arrive in York sometime that night had to run or propel themselves as best they could to the new and unannounced platform. I made it with seconds to spare.

Is this a sensible way to operate the railways? Two anecdotes don’t make a policy, although many more such anecdotes might just. Labour says that it would renationalise the railways. I’ve no idea if that’s a good idea, although it may well be a popular notion.

I suspect a re-nationalised rail service would work better in some ways and be awful in others; my gut tells me it’s not a bad idea, while my head says: “Hang on, it’ll only fall apart in some other way – you know, the old-fashioned rubbish way instead of the modern rubbish way.”

One thing’s for sure, though: what we have now fails to work too often. All those competing companies on the same line hardly make sense, especially when you are turfed off a train without explanation and can’t automatically board the next available one.

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