Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Article: A train too far

In a recent post earlier this month, I told you about my new arrangement to write articles for a website called

As promised, here is my first offering (after an introductory preamble). It is something of a lighthearted rant, detailing a farcical train journey on the Southern UK rail network...

A Train Too Far

On occasions, I like to substitute my car for the train when travelling locally. Of course there are environmental benefits to this but, personally, it affords me the chance to take a break from rushing around and allows me to make the most of my travel time by getting some work done. The danger with this, of course, is that as a passenger, you are completely at the mercy of the transportation system itself (not to mention the staff and operators).

Leaves on the line, the wrong kind of weather, a fatality somewhere up ahead – we’ve all heard the excuses as to why trains can be delayed. But my fortunes at the hands of this method saw a new contender a couple of days ago.

Let me give you a bit of background info. It was coming towards the end of the day, around 5pm, and I had had a lovely day out with my Dad in Chichester – a local city steeped in history, folklore and vast trade connections spanning back to Roman times and beyond. It is well connected, transport-wise, thanks to a wide network of rail and road routes, and in my experience this remains problem-free roughly 90% of the time. Any delays tend to be relatively short-lived.

Not so, the day in question.

With my Dad’s train due to depart at 5:16pm, mine was conveniently scheduled to arrive at the other platform five minutes earlier. As is turns out, his arrived a little early, and we said cheerio so he could sit in the warm and I could head over to the other side of the track. This is where it all started to go wrong.

I saw the light on the front of my train a little way up the line. The only trouble was it didn’t appear to be getting any closer. Fair enough, I thought, it was probably just waiting at a signal, to let another pass by.

Ten minutes came and went. And then another five… at which point a voice crackled over the PA system, announcing that the 5:11pm train was delayed a little way up the line ‘due to a mechanical fault’. No explanation given (of course, that would be asking too much). Now, I’m no expert, but even a rapidly-cooling member of the public like me could hazard a guess that this was a fair assumption!

I should point out that there was no snow or ice in the area at the time. This would at least have presented something of an argument, as in recent weeks (see picture above), but the severity of the weather was limited to light rain which had fallen earlier in the day.

We (the freezing passenger brigade) did get a further update after about another half an hour; the cause was – and I quote our friendly announcer here – “The brakes have locked up.” Marvellous.

I’ll save you the interim details, but suffice it to say that after 2 hours of waiting (with no other services able to come along the line), I’d had enough. My feet were bitterly cold, my hands were fast catching up, I was tired, hungry, and I still had a load of work to do, having been out of the office all day.

This was the point at which I took it upon myself to tackle the station guard to ask just what they (the all-powerful southern rail network) were planning to do, to rescue myself and the other 50+ passengers from a potentially long and dismal evening with not so much as a complimentary cup of tea between us. The answer to my question came somewhat hesitantly (as I was passed the default complaint/claim paperwork) in the form of “Um… we’re laying on a replacement bus service”. When will this be arriving? I asked. “Um… not sure.”


Luckily, there is a large bus station/depot just around the corner from the train station, so I headed off, determined not find myself ultimately emailing clients upon a return home at around 11pm.

Thankfully, one of the drivers had by now been tipped off about the situation, and he was extremely friendly and polite; it was a welcome sight to see him handle his passengers’ concerns with complete professionalism. Within 5 minutes, I was on the road and, due in no small part to his clearly ‘bending the rules’ of the speed limit, I finally got home at about 7:45pm (after picking up a connection at another train station).

This whole sorry state of affairs begs the question: Is it any wonder the government gets frustrated that we don’t use public transport more?! Reliability issues are one thing, but surely they must realise that these, combined with poor communication and a lack of respect for one’s paying customers, will only lead to despondency and ill feeling.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and your situation, wherever you might be.

Incidentally, if any of you would like to see what I get up to month-by-month, why not take a look at my Blog. And if you’re up to speed with Twitter, then please look me up and say hi! I am a big fan of social media and the way it brings us together, so please feel free to comment on any posts, remarks, thoughts and ideas I may come out with along the way – the more the merrier!

Note: I wrote this piece on another train bound for London yesterday. As I was approaching Woking in Surrey, yet another shaky voice appeared over the in-train PA, announcing that due to “technical difficulties” which the train guard did not “know the nature of”, I would shortly have to disembark onto another train which, it was hoped, would get me to my destination on time. Two days in a row – do I get a prize?!

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