Tuesday, June 27, 2006

I was, as you will no doubt recall if you have been paying attention, going to hold forth on the subject of the onboard toileting experience today, but in the light of my adventures over the past 48 hours, it would be mightily remiss of me to ignore the events that led, quite unexpectedly, to my turning up on my dear sister's doorstep in Battersea at 9:30pm (actually about 9ish, but for dramatic effect 9:30 sounds better - it'll be even later next time I tell it) begging for food and the use of her sofa-bed for the night.

It all started at around 7:30 when I was getting ready to leave the office, after a late meeting about something with which I was not really involved and to which my contribution was limited to a few rare but, dare I say it, meaningful nods and grunts. My soon-to-be-ex-xolleague DM (who swears he's not the identically-monikered mysterious stranger of the same name that posted the first comment on this blog) informed me that King's Cross was closed for some reason, and thus I might want to consider alternative arrangements for my journey home or, at the very least, have a piss before leaving, in case of delays. Very thoughtful chap, DM. I shall miss him. But I digress.

Off I went, into the fading light, bidding fond farewells to colleagues, relieved that at least I had missed Coronation Street. Upon arrival at Oxford Circus nothing seemed amiss, until the booming voice over the tannoy started announcing in fairly dramatic terms the severe disruption (see what I mean?) to Kings Cross services due to the closure of the station. It then reeled off a comprehensive set of instructions for passengers travelling on all routes of out Kings Cross except mine. I was most impressed - finally, a truly integrated transport system where problems above ground are communicated below (sometimes I feel it's as if the Underground people and the Mainliners don't like each other, and therefore don't talk to one another. But the fact that my own route had not been mentioned did concern me slightly. Still, I reasoned, the trains would probably be running from Finsbury Park, as had happened before.

Finsbury Park, however, was also closed, and the kindly chap in the luminous yellow thingy informed me that no trains were running and I needed to get a replacement bus service and if I just went around the corner I would find one ready to take me. Well, you can probably guess what hapened next. I rounded the corner as instructed, to be confronted by a queue of displced commuters stretching as far as the eye could see. Another kindly chap in a luminous yellow thingy politely informed me that I would not be getting on the first replacmenet bus to turn up and probably not the second either, but might stand a chance of getting on the third. I waited patiently as the queue lengthened and the spirits sank behind me, and the first bus failed to show up. Eventually, with my stomach rumbling and the light failing, I took the bold decision to give up on getting home (replacement buses have to stop at every stop destination the route, unlike the regular train service, so tend to take the best part of a day to get you to where you want to go) and put in a swift call to my beloved elder sibling, who welcomed me kindly to stay at her Battersea residence for the night.

The journey to Battersea was considerably complicated by getting on the wrong bus at Vauxhall and heading right across London to Elelphant and Castle, at which point I decided to splash out on a cab. I did eventually make it, sated my hunger by cleaning out my sister's fridge, and got to bed at around 11:45pm. It doesn't sound all that rock 'n' roll, really. Still, it felt pretty exciting at the time.

There was a replacement train service running out of Finsbury Park yesterday, which was quick and reliable, and this morning Kings Cross is open and it's as if it never happened. It's odd - I feel like I've had a dramatic couple of days, and all around me life goes on as normal.

How small and insignificant I am. Or something like that.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Well I've certainly learned my lesson. Don't mess with the god of commuting, for he will wreak havoc upon thee.

Following my recent post criticising the current situation at Kings Cross, forces beyond my control have conspired to make my commute noticeably tougher.

First, my regular Monday morning commute (on the very DAY after my original post) was disrupted by a broken-down train at Welwyn Garden City, of all places. Why "of all places"? you may well ask. Well, because I lived there for 3 years, and only recently moved away. So it felt a little bit as though somebody somewhere was having a bit of fun at my expense.

Anyway, it took an hour and a half to trundle into Kings Cross, a hefty delay on a journey that only usually takes 3o minutes. This my fellow passengers and I would not have minded - a broken-down train on the line is far harder to argue with than, say, leaves on the line, but there was no announcement, not even a "sorry for any inconvenience to your journey." Nothing. We were left alone, in an information vacuum, to speculate idly on what could possibly be causing the hold-up, as the intercity trains, with their flashy upholstry and cappucino machines, shot past us, regardless of any cissy broken down obstacles in their path.

I viewed it all as pennance for my grumbling. So, from now on, to try to atone (and in the hope that it might guarantee a faster service) I'm going to use this blog to celebrate commuting , not decry it. After all, it gives us all something to talk about. A bit like discussing the weather, moaning about one's commute has become a default topic of conversation, even among strangers, when all other avenues have been explored. It underpins the newspaper industry (I don't have any facts to back up this claim). And in the anarchic, Darwinian dynamic that sees outwardly courteous, good-natured people barging each other out of the way and flailing with their elbows in a manner to make even John Fashanu blush, we see a microcosm of global society: might makes right, and nice guys finish standing.

Sorry if this has all been a bit deep. Next week: on-train toilets.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Sinister Forces at Kings Cross

I have reached the conclusion that there are sinister forces at work at the heart of the nation’s railways. Not a particularly profound or original conclusion, to be sure, but as an avowed sceptic when it comes to conspiracy theories, one that goes against the grain of my own personal worldview. Now, my journey into work is certainly not one of the harder ones you will find amongst the thousands that travel daily into the heart of our capital city: a direct, fast service on First Capital Connect (formerly WAGN, but they changed the name without warning when I was on holiday) into (and here’s the rub) Kings Cross.

Has anyone noticed that Kings Cross is turning into a rather larger version of the Big Brother House? Allow me to elaborate. When I started working in London 5 years ago, travelling daily from the East Midlands to the metropolitan sprawl of Kings Cross St Pancras, there were six different entrances and exits from St. Pancras alone, several from the combined Underground station, and possibly another seven from Kings Cross itself.

By the time I moved South for an easier commute (ha!), five of the St. Pancras portals had been closed, off, so that everyone was funnelled down a single tunnel which seemed to come out in the middle of a busy Euston Road. Bear in mind the state of mind of the average London commuter when they reach the mid-point of their journey to work and you will appreciate that this was not exactly the formula for a happy bunch.

For the last three years, I’ve been coming into Kings Cross everyday (usually the outlying regions of platforms 9, 10 and 11 that I have come to know as The Sticks). And you know what? The same sinister, claustrophobia-inducing phenomenon has been in evidence, as first one then another exit has been closed off, so that the whole place is coming to resemble the M25. Now, they (whoever “they” are – I am told it’s Network Rail, but I’m not sure) have moved the entrance to the Underground, which doubles as an underpass offering safe passage across the aforementioned Euston Road. And how far have they moved it? A few feet – Wayne Rooney could kick a ball further with his broken metatarsal. And, of course, no signage or explanation.

This all came to a head, for me, on Friday, when I emerged from Judd Street, opposite St. Pancras, with 5 minutes to spare before my train departed. Plenty of time, you might reasonably think, to get across the road and to the platform. I nipped across Euston Road to St. Pancras in no time, but then had to head into the main station, up platform 8 through the usual bad-tempered scrum, knocking over wheelchairs and children as I went, and around the bend past the distinctly underwhelming tourist attraction that is Platform 9 ¾, reaching the train just as the doors slid shut in front of me and the guard, smiling, flicked a V-sign at me (actually I made that last bit up, but he did smile). So I had to wait half an hour with sweaty trousers and slightly raised blood pressure for the next fast service. And did you know “they” have put the charge for the toilets up?

So I hope you understand why I’ve decided that there is something funny going on. I reckon it’s something to do with reality TV, as most things seem to be these days. I look forward to the day when the only way out of the place is being voted out: I have been practising my noisy gum-chewing and downloaded the Crazy Frog ringtone to my mobile, to ensure my nomination.

Like every commuter, of course, I’m not going to so a single thing about it, except set up this blog, because the rail companies' procedures make it all but impossible to register a complaint, at least with a human being. Anyone else with similar experiences is welcome to post them in the same place. I’d be thrilled (and I really mean this) to read about them.