RAILWAYS IN RUIN

Recently Joanna and I travelled to Hayle, Cornwall and back, making one journey by train, and the other by car, Joanna driving.

I had not travelled by train since we were in Japan, and the difference in service was really quite shocking.   In Japan, spotlessly  clean trains glide in to  stations at the exact time to the minute, and come silently to a halt at a point where every door is marked on the platform and waiting passengers are queuing for their particular carriage in an orderly manner.   I am sure I do not need to tell you how this does NOT happen in the UK.

In the description of our difficulties, I have firstly to exonerate British Rail employees.   They were anxious to be helpful, kind and thoughtful, but the rail network has been so fractured and the system is so extremely complicated that I am amazed they manage to deliver any passengers to their destinations at all.     We decided to travel on a different day to what we had booked, and approached the ticket office, me with my walking aid and Joanna in full charm mode.    The clerk, faced with an out of the ordinary request – the cancellation of one ticket and the purchase of two, looked like a rabbit frozen in the headlights.   He said this could not be done and we would have to forfeit the cost of the already booked ticket.   We remained charming and sympathetic, but I shook a little more and looked distressed (as indeed I felt.)    Joanna expressed disappointment and wondered if there was some way…  perhaps, if he could be so kind ….     Anxious to help us, he consulted his colleague.   She thought it might be possible.   The two of them set to work on what proved to be an unbelievably complicated computer process.   It took the combined efforts of two of them about 15 minutes to unravel the machinations of the different timetables, plot us a route, undo the booked ticket etc.   (During this time, the queue, for there were no other clerks available, snaked longer and longer behind us until it was trailing outside the foyer and into the forecourt, and again, though people had been missing trains and looked peeved, seeing as I obviously had difficulties, no-one uttered a single complaint.)

We arrived at Gatwick on the day of travel.    We had a small suitcase (Joanna) and the three wheeled stroller (me.)   At this point we had to change for Reading ,and here we hit our first difficulty.    A train had broken  down on the line, and the delay and disruption this caused menat that we had to travel not by our original route, otherwise we would not have got to Penzance that night.   We consulted an employee.   He looked distressed on our behalf, but the timetable and alternate routes were clearly a foggy muddle in his brain.   Two railway managers, sitting on the platform waiting for a train,  overhearing his stumbling but   well meaning attempts to advise us, intervened, and discussing between themselves and consulting timetables for about 5 minutes, they eventually advised their junior colleague which train we should get and from which platform.   He carried Joanna’s suitcase down a huge flight of stairs while she carried my trolley as ‘the lift was not working’.  (I just cannot imagine what happens to people who are  completely wheel-chair bound.  )

When we arrived at the intermediate station – one we had never planned to visit – we consulted the ticket office for our next train.   He scratched his head and chewed on his pencil, and consulted his screen various times.   Eventually, using his personal mobile phone, and calling as though he were himself a passenger, he obtained the information we needed, and directed us to the right platform.    This train was very crowded, but by the miracle of the kindness of other passengers, I was helped on to the train, a path through the standing room only people was cleared, and a seat was found for me.    We had an hour to spare at Reading, and a helpful employee at an information point took Joanna’s case while we had some lunch and instructed us when to return.   When we did so, another employee escorted us through the station, found us a seat on the platform, and later returned when the train came in and boarded the train and found us seats (the booking system now being inoperative because of the earlier breakdown and there being two trainloads of passengers on this train.

The route from Reading to Penzance is rather picturesque, sometimes through delightful English countryside, where quiet churches with Norman towers nestle sleepily among gentle hills, and sometimes right along the shoreline.   We made speedy progress to Plymouth, at which point the express train suddenly becomes a local train, stopping at every interminable little station on the way to Penzance.    By this time everyone is getting rather tired.    The door to the carriage only opens if you wave your hands towards the top of it.   For long periods, for no visible reason, the toilet door does not open though there is no-one within.    A party of ladies sitting next to us are getting quietly drunk on a bottle of wine each.   A man gallantly gives up his seat so I can have one more convenient.    He is wearing a business suit, is eating crisps, and is carrying, as well as his laptop, a cardboard box full of papers and a cricket bat.   He enters into a long explanation of this to Joanna.    Nobody seems able to open the door to the platform, so another man (a passenger) stands by the door andf opens and shuats it for every exit.   A smart lady going  to see her sister stumbles and falls to the floor.   Joanna takes pity on a young mother and baby who have travelled too long and dandles the basby on her knee for 15 minutes to give the mother a break.    We organise the departure of an anxious lady who is being met by railway staff with a wheelchair;  other pasengers help move her luggage.   Throughout all this a mentally disturbed woman marches up and down the train, muttering, and has to be persuaded gently by he who has volunteered for door duty that she cannot exit the train except at a station.    The train begins to halt and shudder as it leaves every station, and has to stand and rest, wheezing like an asthmatic, before it can be coaxed up any hill.   No ticket inspector ever appears but the passengers have a Dunkirk spirit and pull through together.

When we get to Penzance, the station, John and Alexandra report, is shut up for the evening (it is 8.30 pm); there is no coffee shop, and the toilets are locked.   The gates are unmanned – our tickets have never been checked.

British Rail is ruined.    It no longer exists.    We have a  fractured network, badly maintained, where one section of the network does not connect to the next.    I blame Mrs Thatcher.

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About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.

4 Responses to RAILWAYS IN RUIN

  1. turquoisebay says:

    A momentous journey indeed. It is always a pleasure to travel with you. Joanna x

    • adhocannie says:

      Thanks, Joanna

      Clare commented:

      \’ve done a couple of trips to Cornwall by train and recognise the story you tell, though I\’ve not experienced anything quite as bad. One did involve me becoming \’best friends\’ with the woman opposite who weekly commuted and who was clearly bored out of her brain. We were serenaded by a stag group from Manchester who were headed for Newquay but who had no idea where they were in England, let alone where they had to change trains. They apologised for their language but struggled to keep it under control, and were keen that we shared in their stash of beer. We declined.

      It seems that the service to Devon and Cornwall is particularly bad. I\’ve done a lot of long distance train travel and the routes north are grand and in many journeys to and from Birmingham, I think the trains have only been late twice. What is so disappointing is that for tourism to thrive in the west country (and they need tourism to thrive), the train service needs to be exemplary. Clearly it is a long way away from that.

      Clare.

  2. adhocannie says:

    Well, you see life, if nothing else… AA

  3. Marian Douek says:

    Hi there,
    As Maurice and I recently were island hopping by ferry in Greece, I can tell you that transportation runs precisely on time no matter what the weather. However, when you get to the dock there is absolutely no information. Some confused guy shows up, even as you see the ferry careening directly at you and tells you line up over here or there… whatever. In addition, when it was time for us to board the high speed catamaran for Crete, the seas were choppy to say the least. So, as you approach the front of the queue, basically two sailors reach forward, grab your arm and throw you onto the boat, literally. It was memorable, but effective. But you’re quite right about the Japanese trains. We did that last October.

    Marian and Maurice

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