So, having finally got my tickets, including my one-hundred-and-five-pound travel anytime return, I set off for Exeter station on a rather chilly Friday lunchtime. The train was due in at 13:25 and it was more or less on time. It was already quite busy and I was glad I had a booked seat. Except when I got to my booked seat there was someone sitting on it. Someone I recognised as having got on the train at Exeter. Now I know people don’t always use their reservations but if that is the case then at least give them a chance to get on the train before nicking their place. Don’t wedge yourself into their seat and then barricade yourself in with your suitcase on the also-reserved seat next to you. It’s a busy train so there’s no reason your suitcase should get a seat all to itself unless you’ve paid for it. Also, I’m the kind of out and out meanie who just asks people to move.
So I get to sit down. This is good. The train is on time and I have a seat, booked all the way to Darlington. Yay. The person with the reserved seat next to mine gets on. It turns out she has a rather charming dog with her, and I like dogs. It’s a Jack Russell Terrier crossed with an Italian greyhound. I have no idea who thought of crossing those two breeds, but the result looks like a rather middle-class lurcher.
I have a nice chat with the dog owner and the journey seems to be going fine, though the train is crowded and some people have given up even trying to find a seat. Usually that’s me, standing in the aisles and I’m glad that for once I was organised and booked in advance, even if it did mean a lot of shouting at the Trainline. Then something odd happens. We’re not far out of Bristol Temple Meads when the intercom is switched on and we hear someone counting ‘one, two, three …. [you can guess this bit, he seemed to be able to count OK] twenty-nine, thirty’. The counting was quite amusing, the emergency stop at the end of it less so. Yep, in my bid to get to Darlington from Exeter I had made it all the way to the far outskirts of Bristol before the train hit the buffers, almost literally.
The train manager made an announcement. Apparently the train doors were faulty. Rumours went down the train faster than you can say ‘Twitter’ that they had in fact been opening whilst we had been moving, which is I suppose one way to make the train a bit less crowded. We were instructed to STAY AWAY FROM THE DOORS AWAY FROM THEM ON PAIN OF PAINFUL THINGS NOT NEAR THE DOORS THE DOORS THE DOORS OF DOOM. The train manager didn’t sound terribly happy in all honesty, plus she seemed to be hampered by a lack of staff intercom and had to make announcements to staff by the main intercom, so we heard all the various and mixed instructions to staff to STAY ON THE TRAIN, STAY, NO OFF, NO STAY. NO, NOT THE DOORS THE DOORS THE DOORS OF DOOM (I may have exaggerated a little but she really didn’t sound very happy).
We limped into Bristol Parkway with desperate instructions about the DOORS THE DOORS NOT THE oh you’ve heard it already, you get the idea. But to be honest, on my epic voyage from the south west of England across this great and good land all the way to the soggy wastes of the north east, I had been hoping to get a little further than Somerset before encountering my first major problem. Still, they managed to get us safely out of THE DOORS at the station and then took the abandoned and disgraced train off to the naughty step (possibly, I was past caring). Passengers continuing up the west coast were told to get on the 15:10 train, those of us heading north east were told to get on the 15:40 train, meaning I was going to be at least an hour late. Other trains were being cancelled and 2 of the 4 trains due in whilst I was waiting were substantially delayed. It seemed the railways were not having a good day. I managed to get hold of a customer service person, who was brave enough to be out on the platform although he ran away shortly after talking to me (and I didn’t even shout). I just asked nicely if the 15:40 stopped at Darlington, which it did. Of course where else it was going to stop, what THE DOORS THE DOORS would be up to and whether or not it would have to perform any emergency stops en route were a mystery to both of us.
The 15:40 turned up more or less on time, and was packed. It seemed pointless even trying to get a seat so I stood in the vestibule which is a posh word for the bit between the carriages that smells of toilet. I was suspiciously near THE DOORS which made me distinctly nervous, so I clung on to the hand rail. Because if THE DOORS had spontaneously opened at 100 mph that would have been really helpful and would have stopped me from being sucked out of the vestibule. (It’s possible I watch too many disaster movies involving aeroplanes and people running around in string vests, or maybe it’s Dr Who). At Gloucester I more or less gave up all hope of finding a seat (I’m tempted to start calling it A SEAT, I’m not as young as I used to be and was getting a bit desperate). Also, I was carrying three bottles of wine with me and was wondering if anybody nearby had a bottle opener. I was wondering how many of the bottles would make it to the party in Darlington virgo intacta. In fact I was wondering if they would become valuable emergency supplies whilst stuck in a tunnel somewhere with ravening hordes and strict instructions not to go near THE DOORS or THE SEATS. I may have been catastrophising at this point but frankly it felt all too real.
At Cheltenham Spa I and the lady with the middle-class lurcher made a bid for seats, like two pensioners at a jumble sale, in the nanosecond between the old crowds getting off and the new crowds getting on, we dove towards our intended targets. Miraculously we both got seats, although I ended up sitting next to perhaps the quietest young man I have ever encountered. I contemplated talking to him as it would clearly have scared the pants off him but I wasn’t quite feeling mean, or drunk, enough. Even the train manager was fed up and announced over the intercom ‘Welcome to the sardine express’. He had a point. Friday is busy anyway, but a Friday train with an extra 50% of passengers is just smelly hell on wheels, and not just in the vestibules. By this point I was wondering if it was possible to open a bottle of wine using only a metal nail file.
The train stayed busy until Leeds. It was also becoming slightly delayed since it was picking up all those people waiting for it and the people waiting for the previous failed DOORS train. Now I tend to get hungry when not fed frequently. It’s important to feed me little and often or I get very grumpy. Expecting to get into Darlington around 7, so a little before I normally have dinner, I had taken with me a satsuma, an apple, a Tunnock’s tea cake and a bar of galaxy. It seemed that these were not going to be sufficient for my journey to the north. In fact most of them had been scoffed well before Sheffield leaving me with only an ever decreasing bar of galaxy and the wine. Unfortunately by this stage I had remembered that at least one bottle was screw top, meaning that the threat level to the wine had risen to Defcon 5. Somehow I desisted but I’m not quite sure how. Eventually, an hour and five minutes after I expected to, I made it into Darlington.
The return some 36 hours later proved almost as odd. The train from Darlington to Manchester left on time and almost arrived on time, and was somewhat uneventful. The Manchester to Birmingham New Street train was packed, but I had a reserved seat and the train ran on time so there weren’t any real issues.
Then I got to Birmingham and found out that the connecting train was delayed. It was supposed to be the 18:12 to Plymouth but it’s newly expected time was 18:30. I needed a pee and decided that given the delay there was plenty of time for a toilet break. Except that the toilets were 30p which was a bit of a shock. I was hoping that for 30p I would get a clean toilet and a reasonably pleasant environment but no, apparently that costs a lot more. Now I don’t know about you but when I see a sign saying what price something costs, I move away from the entrance and find the money and then go back to the entrance, thus avoiding blocking the entrance whilst fumbling for money. So I go back to the turnstyles in front of the loos, 30 pieces of silver in hand, and by this point I really need to pee. So someone walks in front of me, sees the sign, stops in front of the turnstyles thereby completely blocking the entrance, shuffles around in her bag, eventually drags out a purse and then starts shuffling around in the purse. Frankly this is introducing a rate-limiting factor into the equation that anyone needing a pee really doesn’t need. I suspect this woman is a relative of those people who get on a bus and look surprised when asked for a fair, and then start shuffling around in their bags. Or people at supermarket tills who haven’t quite grasped that yes, food costs money and that you kind of speed things up if you are prepared for this fact. In order not to wet myself I just barge past, shove my pre-prepared change into the turnstyle slot and sail on through. That, love, is how you do it. She looked shocked by my rudeness but to be honest I think it’s rude to stand in someone’s way, so what can you do about it.
The toilets weren’t worth 30p but I do at least feel better. The Plymouth train is supposed to leave from platform 11. I don’t know how designers have managed it but Birmingham New Street is without doubt the most murky and subterranean station I have ever used. It always feels somehow deeply wrong, like something out of an H.G Wells novel it gives me that sensation of being in some kind of parallel dream state that’s just off to one side of reality. It’s doing this right now, because the 18:12, due to leave platform 11 at 18:30, was apparently going to occupy the same space-time continuum as the 18:30 to Cardiff, also leaving platform 11. So rather than go down the steps to the platform I loiter around on the bridge, staring at the little screen with all the information, because I strongly suspect that a platform change is in order and I cannot be arsed to go down the stairs only to have to run back up them. True I am divested of wine-carrying duties but I still can’t be arsed with all this unnecessary movement especially since I’m feeling the after effects of carrying quite a lot of the wine internally. Plus it’s possible that I am being haunted by a peach vodka concoction that I’d rather not think about but I’m sure my body has quite enough to do without hauling itself down a load of unnecessary steps and then back up them in pursuit of a mystery train.
Whilst I wait, I can’t help but notice the number of warnings. At Bristol Parkway someone had scribbled ‘STAFF use only’ on the platform telephones in black marker pen, as if ravening hordes of hungry passengers, thwarted in their attempts to go north, had taken to using the phones to order pizza. Then there are the repeated warnings about NOT smoking you horrible lot, no never smoke. NEVER on pain of THE DOORS deactivating. There’s a load of stuff about not leaving your luggage unattended. I’m in Birmingham for fuck’s sake. My luggage is jammed between my legs and it’s staying there. I treat any big city as if at any moment any of your possessions are liable to evolve legs of their own and run away. I’m frequently reminded that I am on CCTV for my own SAFETY IT’S FOR YOUR OWN GOOD IT’S ONLY BECAUSE WE LOVE YOU REALLY THAT WE DON’T TRUST YOU AND ARE CONTINUALLY FILMING YOU YOU SHIFTY LITTLE OIK. Then someone announces that I must not (this might not have been a personal announcement, it’s just by this stage it felt like it) rollerblade or cycle or skateboard on the station. Why? Why would I do this? Now you’re just putting ideas in my head. It would be cool to see if my bike, the 18:12 to Plymouth and the 18:30 to Cardiff could all occupy the same point on platform 11. And finally I’m told I must not assault station staff. This is unlikely. If I’m going to assault anyone, trust me it will be a senior manager, since they’re more likely to be the nasty little pissweasel who is responsible for the ills of this world. In fact there’s a lot more I would do to senior managers but won’t say, in case the police have a twitteresque moment and decide I’m the next Paul Chambers. Suffice it to say it would involve the DOORS OF DOOM, a 100mph train and no handrail.
Anyway. It seems that most of the other passengers have also worked out that two trains cannot occupy the same platform at the same time, no matter what the little screens say so we’re all loitering on the bridge. Now I become suspicious. What if we’re not all loitering for the same train? What if it’s all a plan and the 18:12 left on time from another platform, leaving me up here staring at the little screen which is telling me massive pork pies and every other passenger somehow got the right information and is now winging their way towards Plymouth? Admittedly this is a little unlikely, but it is just possible. Then I start to wonder about myself. Is this paranoia? Is it another odd form of catastrophising? Is it a healthy sign of an active imagination? Or just good old-fashioned going bonkers?
I ask a fellow loiterer if she is waiting for the Plymouth train. She is and she even seems to regard me as more or less sane, which is a good sign especially since I’m still not quite sure if I’m in a parallel universe and wherever I actually am, I still doubt it’s the kind of universe that can accommodate two trains in the same space-time spot. Also, by this point it is 18:32, the 18:12 is due in at 18:32 although the platform information has now been removed, and the Cardiff train is pulling out of the station. Then the platform information comes back. We are going from platform 11, the train is on it’s way, we’re off!
I’m glad to see the back of Birmingham New Street as it has always left me with that unsettled feeling that I have wandered into a future dystopia or perhaps an episode of Dark Angel. We eventually make it as far as Cheltenham Spa where officially we are the 18:52 although it is 19:34 and we are still here. Apparently the train in front has “technical difficulties”. Nobody mentions THE DOORS THE DOORS THE DOORS OF DOOM but there’s still enough paranoia in my system to make me think they let the train off the naughty step too early and it’s sitting somewhere between Gloucester and Cheltenham, a great big malign influence, flapping its doors in the dark and by this time I have no Galaxy, no wine, and only a hazy memory of something peach-flavoured which is small comfort when you’re lost in a parallel universe and are having problems with time travel. And travel. The ordinary travel seems to be an issue.
Still, I eventually make it into Exeter, some 40 minutes later than I expected. So far I’ve nearly lost a ticket; shouted a lot; shouted a bit more; got a really expensive ticket for free for no good reason other than that the Trainline’s systems are frankly rather pants; encountered THE BELLOWING DOORS OF DOOM DOOM I TELL YOU WE’RE ALL DOOMED DOOMED TO EXIT BY THE DOORS THE DOORS ‘ladies and gentlemen we will shortly be arriving at Birmingham New Street please be sure to take all your personal possessions and belongings with you’ (why, what else would I do with them? throw them on the tracks? stuff them up the silent young man’s nose? What, what do you think I will do with my possessions, eh, eh?); lost almost two hours of my life to the railway system’s delays; paid ten pence per minute to be told it’s not my problem (it is your problem and I will shout until you acknowledge this fact); paid 30p for a pee (how can one pee cost 30 pee, that’s just wrong); experienced paranoid delusions but heck it’s Birmingham, it’s about as exciting as it gets in Birmingham; met a middle-class lurcher and eaten too much chocolate. Still, as far as I can remember through a sort of fuzzy peach-induced haze (seriously it was the peach more than the vodka, I swear fruit’s not good for you) it was a good party, and in the end that’s what counts.