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View from Vitalia: Of trains, trains and no trains

A protracted, yet well-justified, British Rail-directed rant

It all started rather nicely.

I was returning home from London earlier than usual – shortly after 4pm. Having come to Kings Cross station in good time, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my train was – uncharacteristically – already at the platform, almost 20 minutes before departure. Just like in Switzerland!

Having promptly found a comfy seat near the window in a new and semi-empty air-conditioned carriage, I unfolded my copy of the Evening Standard and immersed myself in the habitual “hot and humid” weather forecast.

It did feel a bit like Zurich or Geneva, at least momentarily it did…

The nice Swiss illusion did not last for long, however. By the time of the departure, the carriage was already pretty full, and the cool air-conditioned breeze had turned into a hot sirocco coming, it seemed, straight out of the sweating passengers’ mouths. Ten minutes after the scheduled departure, the train was still there, and still stationary... At 15 minutes past the departure that never was, the train’s intercom came to its miserable crackling life and made the following announcement in the inimitable British Rail manner of conceited negativity: “We are sorry to announce that this service (“disservice” would be a more appropriate cliché here – VV) is late on departure, because the driver has been delayed while on the way to work on another train...”

Having heard lots of railway announcements in my life (including the classic Swiss apology for the train running ten minutes late “due to an incident in another country”), I was nevertheless tremendously impressed by the sheer Zen (or Catch-22) nature of the above-quoted one. “What if the ‘service’ carrying our train’s driver to work is also being delayed because its own driver has been delayed on his way to work on yet another delayed train, sorry service??” And so on.

My wild heat-propelled imagination began to picture hundreds and hundreds of delayed “services” carrying train drivers to work and never quite arriving snaking all over Britain. I was also reminded of an old (and rather blunt) joke about the key to the wardrobe: “Where is the key to the wardrobe? It’s in the pocket of a jacket... And where is the jacket? It’s in the wardrobe, which is locked... And where is the key to the wardrobe? It’s in the pocket of a jacket inside the wardrobe, which is locked, and the key is in the pocket of a jacket...” And so on until you realise that all your marbles have somehow found themselves in the pocket of that damned locked-in jacket too. That was precisely how I felt when our train finally started moving, with all its passengers, including yours truly, feeling “truly” hot and agitated, apart from the chap sitting next to me and staring through the window nonchalantly. I asked him how he managed to maintain his sangfroid, to which he replied that as a train driver frequently running late for work he knew the futility of worrying only too well!

I wish I were half as calm as he when trying to catch a morning Eurostar to Brussels (where I was to change to a Thalys to Amsterdam) on a Sunday morning several weeks ago. To get to St Pancras by 8:20am (my Eurostar was leaving at 8:58am), I had to ask my neighbour to drive me to Stevenage at 6:40am as there were no scheduled trains to London from Letchworth, where I live, until much later in the day.

The 6:40am train to London was cancelled over the station loudspeaker at 6:35am. No explanations or apologies, and even a touch of some perverse triumph in the announcer’s voice (or so it sounded to me). I could still make my Eurostar by catching the fast 7:13am train, I was thinking. That one was rather sadistically cancelled by the same announcer at 7:10am, with even more fiendish pleasure in her voice. I suddenly realised I was in serious danger of missing my train to Brussels.

With a group of other unhealthily agitated would-be passengers, I was dashing from one platform to another in a chaotic Brownian motion – shouting, waving my hands and vainly appealing to a handful of equally frustrated station staff. It was not their fault, of course, but the buck had to stop somewhere.

“We will reimburse you for the Eurostar ticket too!” a sympathetic station staffer told me soothingly. At which point I – literally – exploded: “I don’t want to be reimbursed! Paying off is, of course, easier than sorting out your trains, for the money doesn’t come out of your pockets! (That was a bit unfair, as I see now). I want to get to Amsterdam to catch up with my son whom I haven’t seen for donkey’s years!”

The staffer misunderstood my “donkey’s years” expression and threatened to call the police if I carried on with the “abuse”. It was hopeless... As we were discussing a possibility of chipping in for a taxi with three other would-be passengers (there were no cabs anywhere near the station, by the way), there came another announcement to the effect that an “additional train” (additional to what? To those cancelled trains that had never arrived or departed?) to London via Hertford North was about to depart from platform 2.  

The route via Hertford North was a long one, with a multitude of stops at stations no one had ever heard about, or at times just at some random electric pylons. It had a bad name and would take over one hour to take me to Kings Cross, from where I’d have to sprint to St Pancras with my suitcase in tow. If it arrived and departed on the dot, albeit no one knew what the dot was, I would still have a hypothetical chance to catch my Eurostar. What other choice did I have?

I boarded the old and bumpy jalopy of a train and was literally vibrating with stress for the duration of the journey. 

This time, we were lucky with the driver, who kept dutifully announcing all the countless stops in a sad voice as if apologising for their sheer quantity.

Believe it or not, the train – probably for the first time in British history – arrived in Kings Cross two minutes earlier than scheduled – the achievement worthy of the front page headlines in national newspapers: ‘Nation Applauds as Heroic Driver Awarded CBE for Early Arrival’, or something like that...

Those two extra minutes proved crucial to me. The boarding for my Eurostar train at St Pancras had been closed, but I was nevertheless allowed to jump the queues at customs and passport control and fell through the closing doors one millisecond before the train started moving.

Needless to say, all the way to Brussels my poor body continued to shake in the comfy seat on board a new state-of-the-art e320 Eurostar coach.

I only stopped trembling after boarding a connecting Thalys train to Amsterdam at a spotlessly clean and empty platform at Brussels-Midi station. A white and gleaming bullet-shaped DB (Deutsche Bahn) train arrived at the opposite track... it felt like crossing over to an alternative universe.

I had a great time with my son in Amsterdam and even managed to visit my favourite Dutch/Belgian enclave Baarle Nassau/Baarle Hertog. Unfortunately, the tale of my train tribulations has taken almost all the space in this blog, so the story of my adventures in the Netherlands will have to wait until the future ‘Views…’ or my next After All columns.

I want to finish with a conversation with my wife on my return from Amsterdam. But before I do that, let me apologise for slagging off British railways somewhat obsessively, as some of you may think. Let me tell you: I do love trains – and those include the much-maligned British trains – and when you love something or someone you want them to be perfect. Well, if not quite perfect, then at least good enough to be loved. The moment British Rail stops supplying the reasons for being slagged off, I will gladly switch over to criticising the horrible state of some public toilets, say.

So far, however, the reasons for criticism keep growing by the day. There’s no end in sight, that was why I could not believe my ears when I heard on the news several weeks ago – when the trains nightmare reached its apogee – that a CBE had just been bestowed, not to the heroically meticulous driver of my train to London via Hertford North (see above), but to the chief executive (or was he a chief executioner?) of British Network Rail presiding over all the ongoing mess!

What was it? A mistake? A mockery? Or simply a case of quiet sadism? The CEO, it turned out, still had some decency left in him – just enough to resign shortly after visiting Buck Palace to receive his award (not enough, though, to return it). His incumbent replacement, I hasten to add, has not generated any improvements as yet, which means that another CBE, or this time just an OBE, perhaps, may be on its way to him... 

“Did you know that our British Railways are the safest in the world and the envy of the whole of Europe?” my wife asked me one evening, at about 9:30pm when she had just arrived home after being stuck for two-and-a-half hours on her commuter train from London.

She then showed me an article from that new compact and bouncy i newspaper – all that is left from the former Independent (from everyone, except for its Russian owners) daily. ‘We are a hugely successful railway’ – ran the headline. Underneath it, there were numerous quotes from Robert Nisbet, a regional director of the industry body for UK railways (whatever that means), asserting (among other things, by which I mean 43 per cent of all services running late and up to 500 train cancellations every day) that the British rail network was indeed the “envy” of Europe.

The article also quoted an anonymous senior industry source talking about British Rail’s “very high standard of safety”, second only to that of ... Luxembourg! I do understand why the quoted “source” chose to remain anonymous. Not to be identified and garrotted by angry commuters, whose “recent experience”, as Mr Nisbet himself admitted in the above article, might not be “reflected” in his comments.

CFL, Luxembourgs main (and only) train operator, may indeed have great safety records due to the relatively small number of trains (comparable to the size of that mini-state) it operates.

As for the British trains, they may be safe for another reason – because they normally do not move.

Indeed, the safest railway scenario is to keep trains stationary – something that the British rail network has been doing very successfully this year.

As I was proofing this blog, while waiting for a chronically delayed “service” to London in the crammed Platform 2 waiting room of Stevenage station, there came the following announcement (I quote it here word-for-word): “The service to London Kings Cross is delayed due to its crew being delayed due to the disruption of another service.”



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