Friday, July 27, 2007

Don't they have trains in Leicester?

In line with the prevailing custom amongst the blogging community, I just thought I'd record, for anyone who's wondering why I've not posted properly this week, that I'm off on holiday to the Midlands. I'll check in with another undoubtedly hilarious post when I get back on the 6th.

Love you all.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Good humoured commuters

It’s been a bit dodgy on the railways recently – the wrong kind of July weather, perhaps – with a greater than average number of delays both into and out of London. Nothing too remarkable about that – these things go in phases, and as a general rule of thumb if there’s a delay on a Monday you can pretty much bet there will be another before the week is out (although I’m sitting here hoping I’m wrong). But the thing that has really struck me over the last few days has been the distinct dichotomy in the way people tend to react when their train is held up.

Now whereas if you’re driving, you tend to plan before you leave, checking everything from local radio to Ceefax to the AA Dear-me-aren’t-the-roads-in-a-complete-mess hotline, before nodding sagely and announcing in a tone of grim satisfaction that the M25 “will be a nightmare” and whipping out the road atlas to plan a ludicrously convoluted alternative route that will inevitably involve getting stuck on some country lane behind a load of sheep crossing (this happens even in central London – it’s amazing). Train travel, for some reason, is another matter. Commuters arriving at a station and finding that the train they were aiming for is either delayed or, in extreme cases, cancelled, are thrown into a state of confusion – this despite the supposedly reassuring presence of a timetable (which of course they won’t have bothered to consult before embarking). This state of confusion results in a lot of running around like a headless chicken, followed by a frantic survey of every passenger on the station along the lines of “Do you know when the next train to Biggleswade is?”. Finally, reluctantly, the commuter moves on to the station staff themselves, who will nod (no matter the question, or whether their response is in the affirmative or not, there is always a nod) and point the by-now-hopelessly-confused commuter in the direction of the farthest platform from wherever they happen to be standing, with firm instructions to go and ask somebody over there.

Then come the mobile phone calls, to home, loved ones, work, parents and anyone else whose number they have stored in their mobiles. The standard beginning “I’m at (insert station here) is generally followed by “No one knows what going on.” (even if this is manifestly untrue), or in some cases “It’s chaos, I’m afraid.” This is the precursor to an elaborate account of the adventure so far, almost always in real time. Eventually, having exhausted all the options for sharing their misfortune with others, they will tramp over to platform 9500, or whatever the outermost number might be, and ask the first railway employee they see (everyone chooses the same one, and a queue rapidly forms, regardless of the availability of his colleagues) whether its best to get on the slow train or wait to see if a faster one turns up.

Having ascertained that delays are expected on all services, everyone gets on the slow train, usual formed of four coaches or less, that’s sitting in platform 9500 under starter’s orders. This precipitates a stampede comparable to the migration of the wildebeeste on the African plains, as everybody races to get to the front of the train in the hope that there is a seat available. Some people actually run. Needless to say, no one makes eye contact, and everyone is terribly careful not to push or shove unless absolutely necessary. There are, of course, no seats left anywhere on the train, so people pile in with shouts of “Can you move down please?”, and if anyone dares to try to read a magazine or newspaper everyone instinctively zeroes in on the guilty party, crowding him or her until they have no choice but to stop reading or hold the thing so close to their face that it’s actually rubbing against their nose. But everyone is very polite about it, naturally.

The funny thing is, that as soon as the train moves out of the platform, even if, as has been known, it rumbles to a halt a few yards outside the station and sits there for an hour, the atmosphere is utterly transformed, and lateness becomes not so much an inconvenience as a source of hilarity. Each further delay, or announcement from the driver, is greeted with a cacophony of chuckles, a gallery of wry smiles and rolling eyes, and lots of manifestly unfunny comments along the lines of “Typical, eh?” or for the really comedically gifted something along the lines of “Might be home by Christmas”, which somehow seem like the wittiest thing in the world and draw hoots of laughter from the galleries. It’s like the Blitz, that famous spirit in adversity – suddenly everyone is best friends, swapping anecdotes, sharing photographs of children and loved ones, playing Eye-Spy, and for the rest of the journey, no matter how long or short, an indefatigable spirit of conviviality is maintained. On disembarking, passengers bid fond farewells, shaking hands, embracing, promising to stay in touch and maybe meet for drinks at some point. The last person off always wishes everyone good luck getting home, drawing even more good-natured laughter. It really does warm the cockles of the heart.

The following morning, its elbows-at-the-ready, eyes-down sullen silence once again, as if none of this had ever happened. Remarkable..

Friday, July 06, 2007

Credit where it's due

When I started blogging in June last year, I had vague notions of charting a year in the life of a London commuter, but mainly just the urge to write something and stick it on the web to see if anyone would read it. My very first post garnered a comment within days from a chap called DM, from whom I've not heard since, but who turned out to be called BigDaveMurray, according to his sketchy profile, and may well have been someone I was at school with who has just accepted me as a friend on Facebook (I must ask him at some point). I didn't honestly imagine I'd still be here 13 months later, still mining the rich seam of nonsensical narrative that commuting provides. But it occurred to me today strolled underneath Euston Road and into the bowels of Kings Cross St. Pancras, that that first post was entitled "Sinister Forces at Kings Cross" (I used to go in for Excessive Capitalisation on my tabloid-esque headlines - as you can see from the above, I don't bother anymore), and the subject was the gradual transformation of Kings Cross into a prison camp, with the exits closed off one by one by the construction workers guided by some unseen and malevolent authority. Now, Network Rail come in for a lot of stick, some of it deserved, but you have to give them credit whre it's due. Kings Cross St Pancras has really evolved since then, and although it's (hopefully) not finished, what they have done so far is a big improvement.

In the old days, getting from the platform at Kings Cross to the other side of Euston Road where I could pick up a bus or, if I was feeling especially energetic, head off down Judd Street on my way to Oxford Street, was a stressful and time-consuming process. Getting off the platform was a trial in itself (and this is not something that has changed) as you had to pick your way past hordes of commuters who seemed to have suffered a collective attack of indecision with regards to where they had planned to go after they got off the train. Then actually making it across the station concourse remains an exercise in snake-hipped gymnaticism, picking a way through the dawdling crowds with bewildering balance that would make Ryan Giggs red with envy. But on emerging into the daylight, the real challenge was still ahead. The synchronisation of the traffic lights was, shall we say, inventive, so that that it became a real-life version of that classic computer game "Frogger" if you wanted to attempt to get across the road up top (substituting fellow commuters with malevolent luggage for those crocodile things that used to lurk in the river). But the alternative was scarcely less intimidating.

There used to be, outside Kings Cross, a rickety old staircase leading from street level to the Underground station. It was wide enough for approximately one and a half average-width human beings. Anyone who has ever experienced rush hour at Kings Cross will know that you just don't get one-and-a-half-times-width people. What you get is one sprawling mass of humanity that even at its outermost extermities is never less than about four times the width of a regular person. So what used to happen was that a row of five commuters would march to the top of the staircase and head downwards using their bags as a kind of protective sheild (a bit like the Roman legionaries used to do). Meanwhile a row of equally-determined Undergrounders would advance the other way and there would inevitably be a clash, which would result in at least two people from each side being knocked out the way, right into the path of the people behind them, leading to a kind of human domino rally.

The powers-that-be soon got wise to this brutal sport, and started posting a solitary (and very lonely-looking) sentry at the top of the rikety staircase with strict instructions to bar anyone from going down it, which I thought very unfair, because effectively it penalised one side and not the other. Evidently I was not alone, because soon enough people started to just ignore the hapless conductors, and the whole thing threatened to get messy again.

So the powers-that-be called in the forces of construction and decreed that the staircase should be widened to allow free access to and from the Underground station to all the denizens of the South side of Kings Cross. Construction work ensued, the whole staircase was sealed up and for a time no one had any idea what was afoot. And that's where I came in, one slightly bewildered commuter who fancied publishing his thoughts on the situation to see if anyone was interested.

These days, the staircase is wide enough quite literally for a train to pass down it, and a steady flow of happy and hardy commuters travels up and down it in perfect harmony at all hours of the day and night. We all remember what it used to be like, and we must all acknowledge our debt of gratitude to the people who made this come about. Even if they can't provide decent access to platforms 9, 10 and 11 meaning that people frequently miss their trains because they get stuck outside Whistlestop waiting for the passengers of the Cambridge train to clear out of the way.