Holiday nightmare on Britain's Third World railways

Holiday nightmare on Britain's Third World railways
By Mark Palmer
26 May 2013

Friday evening and Kings Cross station was bedlam at the start of the Bank Holiday weekend — but it was a happy kind of bedlam.

The working week was over and expectations were riding high as families, students, elderly couples, children of all ages and hundreds of tourists waited to learn from which platform the 7pm London to Edinburgh train would leave. Even the weather forecast was half-decent. We were a group of four and had reserved seats in carriage C several weeks in advance. We paid £125 each for a return ticket.

Nearly eight hours later, on a trip that should have taken three hours and 40 minutes, we had still not reached our final destination — though we had long reached the end of our tether.

Friday evening and Kings Cross station was bedlam at the start of the Bank Holiday weekend - but it was a happy kind of bedlam

It was a journey that tested many of our fellow passengers to the limit; a frightening experience for some and confirmation that in so many areas of life Britain is nothing more than a Third World country run by overpaid incompetents accountable to no one. Hundreds of us put up with it because, as a nation, we are still good in adversity. Perhaps the increasingly overused wartime slogan, Keep Calm And Carry On, has subliminally persuaded us that the shambles of day-to-day living in this country is a perfectly normal state of affairs and will never change. So why fight it?

But many of us who were stranded on the Nightmare Express might beg to differ. As one pensioner said to me at one point as the lights went out and the temperature rose higher and higher in our hermetically sealed carriage: ‘You can bet your life that if a member of the Cabinet were on this train, heads would roll. As it is, we’ll be fobbed off with excuses and the promise of a refund — then the same thing will happen all over again in a few weeks’ time.

When we boarded our train, it did dawn on me that it was dangerously overcrowded. One of the guards on the platform practically pushed passengers on to the train, shouting: ‘Move right down the corridors, we need to get this train off.’ People did as they were told, taking their cases with them because there was no room in the racks near the doors. Every inch of space was occupied. It took us 40 minutes just to get to our seats, and yet the hapless ‘train manager’ still had the audacity to ask passengers to ‘keep the aisles clear for your safety and comfort’. He never dared move through the train to inspect tickets. He would have been lynched a hundred times over if he had.

Apart from the general sense that we were all jammed into a giant sardine can hurtling through the countryside, the journey progressed without incident for the first 30 minutes. Then, shortly before Newark in the East Midlands, the disembodied voice announced that there was a problem with a section of the northbound track, and that our train was in a queue to use the southbound track for a mile or so — while, hopefully, going in a northern direction.

While we conjured visions of travelling all the way back to London, those with connections to meet at York resigned themselves to a very long evening — or even an expensive night in a hotel. In the end, the to-ing and fro-ing caused a delay of two hours, during which the passengers around us became increasingly frazzled. We were seated near a group of South Africans, who were preparing to run in the Edinburgh Marathon on behalf of the cancer charity Macmillan Caring Locally. One of them said he had never seen such an overcrowded train, and asked me if there was a limit to the number of people allowed on board.

Shortly after Newcastle, the train slowed down and then, as we approached Berwick-Upon-Tweed, which was our stop, it came to a complete halt. And remained stationary for a further 90 minutes. The gormless guard had been replaced at Newcastle by a woman who said the train had stopped because someone had pulled the passenger alarm. This might have been true, but the real reason was that the train before us — the 6pm London to Edinburgh service — had broken down in the station and all its passengers had been told to disembark.

Unsurprisingly, late on a Friday, when most of us are desperate for the week to end, tensions were running high, not least because the station staff refused to open up the First Class lounge so the elderly or frail could shelter from the cold. The police were called. I know this because my wife, who had driven up from London earlier in the day, was waiting at Berwick for us to arrive. She said the scene was more chaotic than anything she had ever seen in India, whose railways are famous for their lunatic overcrowding. Our guard finally told us about the broken-down train ahead of us. She said that ‘fault finding’ was ‘ongoing’, but she had no idea when we might be on the move.

According to Mark Palmer passengers are treated like fodder and people are jam packed into overcrowded trains

As she finished her announcement, my daughter told me there was a distressed young man slumped on the floor by one of the doors. I went to see him and helped him to his feet. He explained that he suffered from claustrophobia — then, suddenly, he began pounding the window of the door with his fist and shouting: ‘I need fresh air NOW!’ I told him to walk with me to the guard’s carriage at the other end of the train, where I knew there was a small window that could be opened. On the way, we passed crying babies, despairing old people with vacant eyes, lavatories blocked in such a way that urine was seeping under the doors, and everywhere there was anger and bewilderment.

When we got to the buffet car, I asked for some water for the man I was accompanying. There was none. As we entered the First Class carriages, a member of the train staff had the gall to ask if we had First Class tickets. When we reached the little window at the back of the train, the young man gulped the air like a dog trapped in a baking car. Then the lights went out again. This, the guard eventually explained, was because it had been decided that our train would couple up to the broken down one in front and attempt to shunt it past Berwick station into a siding, and reverse back into the station. Then all those leaving the train could do so, and those waiting on the platform at Berwick could continue their journey aboard our train — if only they could fit on.

Chaos: Angry passengers from the broken down train milling at Berwick. The platform clock tells the grim tale - It is 1.29am

Not once did any member of staff walk up and down the train to see if any passengers needed help. I came across a pregnant woman who told me she was expecting a baby in less than five weeks. She was struggling in the heat, and her mobile phone battery was dead. I told my daughter’s boyfriend to sit with her and offer her his phone. Increasingly, the place began to feel like a relief centre in a war zone. We pulled into Berwick at 2.40am.

Those going on to Edinburgh eventually arrived at 3.39am, which means passengers who were on the 6pm from London had been travelling for nearly ten hours. Some Bank Holiday.

‘We are sorry for any inconvenience that may have been caused,’ was the last thing I heard our guard say, still reading from a script and still with an inflection that suggested she wanted us to feel sorry for the stress she was under. The next morning, I was reading about the Government’s plans for the High Speed Rail link from London to Manchester. If ever there was a case of running before you can walk, this is it.

Our public transport is a disgrace. The East Coast Line, which is now State-owned and will remain so until at least 2017, is particularly dreadful. Passengers are treated like fodder; no one takes responsibility for abject failure and not even the ‘duty spokesman’ knew the answer to most of my questions. I wanted to know if there is ever a cut-off point on the number of people allowed to board a train. ‘I don’t have information about that,’ he said. Is there always water on board in case of emergencies? ‘There is sometimes in the guard’s carriage, I think.’ I told him I wanted the East Coast line to issue a statement. Which it did: ‘We would like to apologise to customers for the disruption on Friday evening.’

So that’s all right then.

Source: Daily Mail UK.