The end of the week in which we were told that rail fares were due to go up over three per cent coincided with I – and many, many others – experiencing train journeys from hell.
In fact, the words ‘from hell’ need hardly be added to the words ‘train journey’ these days.
In an attempt to spend time with my ageing mother in Northamptonshire, I rose uncomfortably early for a Sunday to ensure that I caught the 9am train from St Pancras International (the station ‘from hell’).
The journey to Kettering usually takes just under an hour. This East Midlands train was scheduled to take 90 minutes. In reality, it took two hours and 15 minutes. Why? Difficult to say. Several long-winded explanations were given but, since the speakers in our carriage were faulty, we could only hear every other syllable of announcements.
It appeared to be something to do with signal failure – and ‘a signal man’ (I didn’t know they still had those) being summoned. The train was stationary in the middle of nowhere for about 20 frustrating minutes, before the signal man eventually helped us on our way – but at a pace that suggested he might be walking in front of us with a red flag.
Finally, I made it; finally, I spent some time with my mum; and finally – and with foolish optimism – I boarded the train back to London. Actually I didn’t ‘board’ the train. I fought to get on the train, which arrived from Nottingham, more crowded than a rush-hour tube. People and suitcases were jammed in so tightly that they started falling out as the train doors opened.
Once we were all crammed back in, we headed towards London. In the space at the end of the carriage, I counted 15 of us, plus luggage. We were so packed in that, even when we arrived in stations, we had great difficulty figuring out which side the platform was, since we couldn’t see out.
A couple from Israel who got on at Luton, having just arrived by plane, looked initially horrified but pluckily pushed themselves and their suitcases aboard.
‘What’s happened? Why is it like this?’ they asked me.
‘This is England,’ I explained. ‘This is what our trains are like.’
‘And,’ I could have added, ‘they are a national disgrace.’