Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The road to hell

I became a leader of men last night, and an angry one to boot! 

My journey home from Newcastle on the 7.04pm, very quickly became a nightmare, with the train grinding to a halt outside Darlington where it sat, motionless, for 2 1/2 hours whilst engineers tried to work out how to get us through severe floods.

To make matters worse, we'd been informed, on leaving Newcastle, that the buffet car was closing down due to "lack of staff, " and would only reopen in York... When the announcement was first made, no one batted an eyelid. Newcastle to York is an hour's journey tops. Little did we know that it was destined to take over 4.

As we sat on the train outside Darlington, waiting for information about what was going on, a sense of wartime camaraderie began to develop amongst passengers. I lent someone my phone charger and got taking to the woman opposite who was knitting Christmas stockings. Periodically, someone would crack a lame joke, and the carriage would erupt into hysterics. 

What united us all was the sense that there was a complete lack of visible train staff as we sat, twiddling our thumbs. Periodically, a disembodied voice on the tannoy would inform us that there were floods on the line, but no one came through the train to answer a series of mounting questions. As the hours ticked past, more and more of us missed our last connections. The tannoy voice assured us that, if we got off the train at our planned stops, station staff would be able to help. What seemed odd was the voice's constant reiteration of the demand that we weren't to try to distract station staff until our train "had cleared the station." This was apparently for our own safety, although the suggestion passing through the passengers was that the guard simply wanted to avoid the wrath of angry passengers if his promises of assistance from station staff evaporated. 

The voice also told us that we could fill in forms for potential compensation, but that "unfortunately", all the forms had inexplicably disappeared from the train itself. A little convenient, perhaps?

After two hours, the train started inching forward through the flood zone, and for a short time, everything got a little hairy. The train started listing to the right, there was a weird smell of burning, and the chap on the other side of the aisle said he could see "waves of water..." When I went over to look for myself, the comment was downgraded from "waves" to "ripples," but none of us had any idea what was going on in the darkness outside.

We sped up south of North Allerton, where the passengers from previously cancelled trains joined our's, and turned the carriages into a giant game of sardines. At York, a lot of people got off. The woman next to me had missed the last connection to Sheffield, so had decided to book herself into an hotel, and the lady with the stockings had no idea how to get back to Scarborough. 

There were no announcements to tell us that the buffet had reopened, but word slowly filtered through to my carriage. Absolutely parched, and terribly hungry, I went, twice, to see if I could find something to eat, but there were scores of people in the queue, so I decided to give it 30 minutes.

Imagine my horror, therefore, when the faceless guard made an announcement to say that the buffet car was having to close, yet again due to "staff shortages." 

It should be pointed out that the buffet car man was later found relaxing in First Class. Not exactly entering into the Dunkirk spirit!

We finally reached Peterborough and learnt that the train (initially due in to London at 21.45) was now expected to reach its destination at 00.55, but just south of our final stop at Stevenage, we were told (again via tannoy) that "due to planned engineering works" the train was now being diverted via Hertford, which would add another crippling 20 minutes to the journey. 

I saw red and immediately stormed my way down to the buffet carriage to find the guard. I found the buffet man, in first class, and asked him to confirm if we were going to be delayed another 30 minutes. "I don't know," he said, "I wasn't listening... I'm not on duty. Speak to the guard. He's the other end of the train." 

So I trekked my way through the compartments and found the guard sitting in a little room at the front of the train behind a closed door. 

In my view he should have been a great deal more present throughout the journey. People were worried about getting home, and they were hungry. Surely it would have been a nice gesture to try to keep the buffet open until we reached King's Cross? Everyone on board understood that the floods were unavoidable, but we were also aware that railway staff had chosen to close the buffet car for the very stretch of line  where delays were most likely, which generates questions about whether someone at East Coast was trying to avoid handing out the customary free teas and coffees that these situations require.

"Is it true we've been diverted via Hertford?" I asked the guard. "I'm afraid so," he said. "But 20 minutes ago you said we'd be in at 00.55?" "They changed their minds and redirected the train at the last minute. It happens. I can't control what they do." "But it's added another 20 minutes to our journey. There are a lot of people on this train who don't know how they'll get home from King's Cross, what you CAN do is a tour of the train to answer people's questions and put their minds at rest." "I've made announcements," he said, "if they want help, they'll have to speak to station staff." "But will we be given taxis?" I asked. "It depends how you'd normally get home," said the guard. "By tube", I said "and tubes won't be running at this time." "Then they'll need to provide you with a taxi." "Does that apply to everyone on the train?" I asked. "Not if they live around the corner from King's Cross" came the reply. "Very few people do. Could you make an announcement to let the passengers know that taxis will be provided?" I asked. "No." His response was brutal. "Will you pass through the carriage to put people's minds at rest and explain to them that the train has had another delay? "I'm not going to pass through the train. I've made an announcement." 

...So I did his job for him, and went into every carriage making the announcement I felt sure he should have made himself:

"Ladies and gentlemen, some of you may not have heard the announcement, but I'm afraid we have a further  20 minute delay, so aren't due into King's Cross until 1.20am." (Big groans) "What you MIGHT not know is that East Coast Mainline are obliged to help us to get home, so when the train comes into the station, follow me, and we'll go and speak to station staff about getting free taxis home." I got three rounds of applause, countless "thank Gods" and a number of people made "people power gestures." I was also subjected to a barrage of questions, which would have been much better answered by the train staff.

I went back to the guard and explained that I'd spoken to all the passengers and suggested that he might need to radio ahead to tell the station staff that a large number of taxis would be required!

I asked one more question, the answer to which was deeply disturbing;

"Why did they stop the buffet car at Peterborough?"

"I've no idea," said the guard, "I assume they needed to attend to first class passengers."

I'm not sure there's anything else that I can add to that! 

As I got off the train, 200 passengers followed me down the platform, and, in fairness, the staff at King's Cross seemed both organised and polite, if slightly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people who needed help.

Now, I don't know how long it took to get everyone home. I was being picked up by my partner at the station, so I left a cluster of people with station staff. 

But here are my questions:

1) Why did the train guard spend the majority of an incredibly difficult journey sitting in his room? Why did he make little effort, even when asked, to put people's minds at rest? Was he frightened perhaps by the response he'd get?

2) Why was the buffet car closed for a single section of the line which rail staff must have known would be subject to delays? Surely a compassionate company would do everything possible to make sure their customers were fed and watered during a distressing time?

3) Why had complaint forms mysteriously vanished from the train itself?

4) Why did the buffet car open at York, and then close within an hour whilst there were still long queues of thirsty people stretching down the aisles?

5) Why on earth would East Coast Mainline seem to favour the comfort of First Class passengers?

6) Why was the buffet car staff member sitting in first class instead of rolling up his sleeves and helping passengers through a difficult experience? Why would someone be employed simply to run the buffet car from York to Peterborough?

Thing is, I love train travel, and I particularly love the iconic route from London to Edinburgh. We all make mistakes, and many of East Coast staff are absolutely brilliant at their jobs. I have had countless stress-free journeys on the route. But last night something went wrong beyond the issues created by the floods and I would love someone to get to the bottom of it. 

I am grateful for the communications I've had with East Coast, a spokesman from whom has said: "Our staff have been dealing with exceptional weather conditions over the last two days, and have been working hard to get customers to their destinations.
"We thank Mr Till for bringing this to our attention and will investigate what happened."

1 comment:

  1. Good for you for taking a stand and helping people! Really unimpressed by the train staff's behaviour.