Monday, June 13, 2011

Blood on the tracks

For years I’ve had my life set up so I don’t have to travel that much – I’ve never had to commute to work (apart from a year of Botley Road > Milton Park via 2cv, which doesn’t really count) and I live within walking / cycling / local bussing distance of pretty much everything I ever want to do. When people tell me how lucky I am, I point out that it was a deliberate choice. I have only ever looked for jobs near where I want to live, thus constraining career options, and I spend a stupendously large proportion of my consequently limited income on housing. In return, I get a lot of sleep.

But at the moment, we spend a long weekend every month in Lancaster, which involves getting there. Usually on a Friday afternoon. There is no pleasant way of doing this, so we find ourselves alternating between several equally stressful options. The quickest involved setting off by car at 5.30 am on Saturday morning, but you really wouldn’t want to do that very often. This time we went for what turned out to be the slowest: the 17.36 train from Oxford on a Friday. We were pushing it to get to the station on time, but we needn’t have bothered: by 17.36 the 16.36 hadn’t materialised, thanks to someone jumping in front of a train (possibly even that one) somewhere near Southampton.

I won’t dwell here on my thoughts on choosing this particular method of offing yourself, but suffice it to say that the “gentleman fatality” did not get much sympathy from many of the thousands of people whose Friday night train journeys he disrupted, nor from the train staff trying to deal with the logistical chaos.

Now, while those staff we came into contact with were doing a great job under the circumstances, and while I accept that it takes time to clear a corpse from a train track, what really pissed me off was the handling of connections. There’s no direct train from Oxford to Preston anymore: we have to change at Birmingham on the way up and Wolverhampton on the way down. We arrived into Birmingham fifty minutes late, on a train that had originated nowhere near Southampton. But our connection had been 40 minutes, so we only actually missed the West Coast mainline train – to Preston and Lancaster, but also all the way to Glasgow – by 10 minutes. There wasn’t another one for TWO HOURS. Half the train was heading north, and many of us had reservations for, or tickets only valid on, that train. Why couldn't they hold it for 15 sodding minutes?

But I guess they have punctuality targets, the gentleman fatality had just bled all over one of them, and someone somewhere decided a punctual train was more important than a train with all its designated passengers. So we ended up on a train to Manchester, and then another to Preston. In the end, it was fine – in fact it was fun – we met Justine, a friendly, interesting and naturally curious person who makes programmes for TV and radio, and she interviewed us on Audioboo about the stuff we hold on to (4 mins - goes with the photo above) and why we decided to join Lancaster Cohousing (10 mins). When I played the first of these to my mum and my sister after we finally arrived in Lytham at 11.30 pm, we all cried with laughter.

So there was no damage done to us, really, but we were some of the lucky ones. Other people were missing time with their families, missing appointments, standing up for hours, dealing with fractious children up too late, getting stressed and miserable – and paying through the nose for the privilege. It’s enough to make you think that trains are too much hassle, and we (big we, not small we) can't afford to be thinking that.


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