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..


At 8:10 PM GMT+1 , Blogger DJ Kirkby said...

And here i was thinking that I was only imagining this happened every time I went to London...nice to know I am not. Mind you it would be even nice if it didn't happen...

At 12:08 PM GMT+1 , Blogger JD said...

Thanks DJ, and thanks for being so helpful over the posting error. It's nice to know someone is looking out for you.

At 6:30 PM GMT+1 , Blogger Chopski said...

Thankfully I dont have to use the train often! We do have a train line which runs along the bottom of our garden though. When we are sat outside (not often at the moment) eating supper and the trains stop none of the commuters look very happy. Not even a wave from our youngest seems to raise spirits!!

At 10:57 AM GMT+1 , Blogger JD said...

That's outrageous! What is the matter with people. Can't even muster a smile.

They should all start blogs. It's good for the spirit.

At 7:18 AM GMT+1 , Blogger paddy said...

Surreal man- you're brilliant.
Y;-) Paddy

At 9:49 PM GMT+1 , Blogger JD said...

Cheers Paddy. Looking forward to hearing more from yourself.


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