Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Road to Hell (and Luton)

Delays, delays, delays. Now I'm not one to moan about the trains (doesn't really fit with the Happy thing), but that was a heck of a week, commuting-wise. First, on Monday night I went for a quick drink after work with a friend, intending to cunningly avoid Coronation Street and Eastenders (Monday night, for the uninitiated, is triple-whammy night), thus enabling The Wife to watch them in peace), arriving home in time for a bit of dinner and a cuddle. Alas, my best-laid plans were scuppered by "an incident at Potters Bar" causing 25 minute delays. Tuesday brought more of the same - only this time we actually got stuck for something like 20 minutes right outside my "home" station - I wouldn't have minded so much except that I was trying to get to Sainsbury's, before it shut, to pick up some samples for a meeting I had the next day - thank goodness for off licenses. Still, it did give me a chance to wade through one of London's new free newspapers - London Lite. The verdict? Well, it is free.

I was late home on Wednesday and Thursday too, but that was down to last minute panics about meetings keeping me in the office, rather than any failings of the transport system. And it did enable me to play one of very favourite station games: going round all the foody places on the concourse to see what I can afford with the the coppers in my wallet. Good thing I like cereal bars.

But the week's real adventure came on Friday, when I headed to Northampton for a meeting. Getting there by train from Hertfordshire, where I live, would involve a complicated sequence of mini-commutes, either into London or Luton (I think), to pick up a connection. It made sense, therefore, to forgo the railways for a day and get behind the wheel of the family car for the drive up the M1, thus enabling me to compare the trials of railway travel with the tribulations of the automotive equivalent. Now, each has factors in its favour: in the car, as any petrol-head will tell you, you're enclosed in your own space, you can play your music as loud as you want without incurring the wrath of fellow passengers, and of course you get from door to door, without having to worry about getting to and from the station at either end. On the train, on the other hand, you can read books, drink coffee, or even have a nap (although this does leave one prone to lolling, dribbling, open-mouth syndrome, which can cause embarressment and considerable loss of credibility). Both, of course, leave you equally vulnerable to delays.

Anyway, I was a bit late leaving, the result of an unplanned interlude spent trying in vain to get my projector to work (I ended up presenting straight off the laptop). By the time I hit Luton, whose treacherous road system you have to negotiate to get to the M1 from my place, it was nearing half eight, and the traffic jams were predictable. I spent ten mintues queueing to get through a roundabout to get on to the slip road - took me back to my Bushey days, and reminded why I went back to London. The main bit of the journey was trouble-free, and I got to my destination, after the obligatory bewildered circumnavigation of the town three times via ring road, with twenty mintues to spare. All very easy, and enough to make me consider throwing in the towel in London and taking a job in Milton Keynes for ease and convenience (it was only a fleeting consideration, lest you think I had mislaid my sanity). But it was the journey back that was to prove testing.

I set off at just past noon, planning an industrious afternoon's activities from the comfort of my study, got back on the M1 with ease, and tuned in to the Simon Mayo show on Five Live (something I have not been able to do in years). The sun was shining, the birds were, no doubt, singing somewhere, and all seemed well-set. Then, about half a mile from the Luton junction, everything stopped. I don't mean slowed down, you understand - I mean stopped. I was stuck behind a lorry in the middle lane, and so of course I couldn't see a thing ahead of me to give me some clue as to what was going on. As always happens when I get stuck in traffic, the radio people, as if alerted by some magical sixth sense to my plight, took an extended break from traffic reports, leaving me to sit, engine running, in the midst of a long line of cars, gloomily recalling tales I'd heard of people being stuck overnight in jams with no food or water. After ten minutes or so, I turned off the engine. After eleven minutes, I turned it back on as the van in front inched forward, and stalled, much to the amusement of the flash git behind me in the Audi TT.

But this time, the Sports Panel had finished debating the relative sporting merits of Schumacher, Federer, Woods and Phil "The Power" Taylor, so a good half hour had passed since I had became embroiled in the queue. David Walliams and Matt Lucas (who once lived in the same Hall of Residence as my sister) were next up, talking about their new book, and I like to think that they would have appreciated what happened next. As I edged ever closer to the Luton exit at Junction 11, I inched over into the inside lane, and after a couple more frustrating stationary interludes, breathed a sigh of relief as I finally got off the motorway and on to the slip road. At the roundabout, I was about to take the first left into Luton, until I noticed a sign for the A505 and my home town beckoning seductively from the second exit. Seized by a sudden conviction that I was bound to get stuck in rush hour traffic in the centre of Luton (it was approaching 3pm, but rush hour starts early on Fridays), I succumbed to the siren-like charms of that dastardly sign, shot up the slip road from the second exit, looking forward to zooming along a little trunk road and waving cheerily to all those still stuck on the motorway, only to find that, in fact, there was no such trunk road, and that the sign, frankly, had lied to me. I was back on the M1, and within ten seconds of rejoining the jam, stationary once more. Oh, how I might well have laughed.

After a further fifteen minutes of queueing, I gratefully escaped at Juntion 10, found the real A505, and proceeded homewards at a reasonable pace, arriving eventually at just gone twenty to four, sometime after Little Britain's inhabitants had left the airwaves. What remained of my afternoon was productive enough, but could have been much more so had I not been so detained by the two broken down cars which, I eventually discovered, were the cause of the tailbacks. One other thing worthy of note: as I waited at a pedestrian crossing to take the road back up to my house, I was sufficiently vexed by a lady crossing the road with a bag of shopping, as the lights changed, that I was momentarily gripped by a desire to wind down my window and utter some form of expletive in her direction. Quite out of character for a commuter as Happy as I, and it brought home to me why I will remain committed to rail travel for as long as I can: a lot of rail commuters can be selfish, miserable cads, to be sure, but rarely are they as aggressive as motorists.


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At 4:56 PM GMT+1 , Blogger Rish said...

I take your point about selfish and aggressive drivers. I have been prone to moments of selfishness myself behind the wheel.

Count yourself lucky that it actually saves you time to take the train rather than drive! It takes me twice as long to commute by train as to drive (most days).

Stay happy!


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