Bank holiday trains are unpleasant at the best of times. But no matter how hellish you’re expecting, somehow train companies always conspire to make it worse.
Paddington Station: Maundy Thursday. Half past seven. The concourse is packed, as impatient and stressed travellers all look to escape London. There’s an occasional shout and an even more occasional collisions as men in suits or women with suitcases collide into another commuter.
Pasty-in-hand I groan inwardly when I see the word ‘delayed’ flash up next to the 19.45 to Plymouth. Around me, faces show everybody else is, minus the pasty, doing the same. I edge close to Platform 1, where Devon-bound trains usually depart from.
Two minutes before the train was originally scheduled to depart the word ‘delayed’ is replaced by ‘on time’, and there is panic. I drag my bag along at a brisk pace towards coach E, as even more stressed and panicked people run past. A quick glance behind shows a hoard of travellers desperate to make the train. I hurry on, and am one of the first into my carriage.
Then, confusion. My ticket is labelled 42a. The seat numbers are labelled B and skip from B39 to B51 with no sign of my seat. I quickly pace up to the end of the carriage and back again, before it becomes clear the reserved ticket stubs on the top of the seats bear no correlation to the actual seat numbers. Nevertheless, there’s a stub with 42a written on it attached to seat B53, and I gratefully sink into it.
In the rest of the carriage chaos is breaking out. It’s easy to use hyperbole in these sort of situations, but chaos really is the only word that does this justice. People are searching for seats that may or may not exist, while passengers with unreserved seats are cramming into whatever space they can, assuming they can move. At the end of the carriage, it’s even more rammed. This is unpleasant. The woman opposite the aisle from me is helpfully directing people to the ticket stubs rather than seat numbers and, by and large, this is helping as people start to find their seats, assuming they could move.
Then comes the moment those of us sitting down were dreading. A woman and her granddaughter have a ticket for Carriage E: B51 – the seat of the helpful blonde woman.
“Excuse me, you’re in my seat.”
“No, I’m sorry. This is my seat. I have a ticket for it.”
“Well, what about us?”
“I’m sorry – I’ve brought a ticket. This is my seat.”
There is an impasse. A similar argument has broken out a few seats down. Neither occupant is prepared to move and both seat claimants have valid tickets.
The woman and her granddaughter eventually head towards First Class at the blonde woman’s suggestion, but it’s clear neither are happy. The blonde woman’s cheerful demeanour is a little less cheerful.
The train lurches off, nearly throwing all those standing in the aisle off their seat. Then it’s chaos part 2. The woman and granddaughter have found the Guard who marches up to the blonde woman. “I’m sorry, you’ll have to move. This woman has tickets for you seat.”
“I’m sorry, I’ve got tickets for this seat. I’m not moving.”
This conversation continues back and forth for a good few minutes with neither side willing to give in, but despite both women having valid tickets, the guard clearly sees the blonde woman as the person in the wrong. “Look, I’ve got lots to do, if you could just move, then we can all get on with the journey.”
As moving tactics go, this isn’t particularly tactful, as is clearly from the reaction of the blonde woman.
Eventually the guard offers her a seat in another carriage belonging to a “disabled person who hasn’t turned up” but, much to the blonde woman’s chagrin, refuses to take her to the seat. “I have more important things to do,” he sniffs, regardless of the fact this would be largely taken up by getting people in the right seats.
Quite reasonably, the blonde asked what guarantees there are that the seat will be unoccupied be there. It just is, apparently.
At this point, a thought goes through my mind to offer my seat, and stand for the journey. To my shame, I elect to stay silent, and brood over my cowardice on and off for the rest of the journey. The guard moves down the carriage, oddly not checking my valid-yet-not-valid ticket, and two seats down I hear: “Excuse me. You’re in this woman’s seat. You’ll have to move.”
“But I’ve got a ticket for this seat. It matches the reservation stub.”
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to move.”
A couple of hours later, the woman and her granddaughter move to get ready and discover a book left behind by the blonde woman. Still brooding, I offered to wander down the train and see if I can alleviate my inner shame and make some sort of amends for choosing to stick in my seat, and driving a train ticket-shaped paper cut into chivalry. The blonde woman is in First Class and smiles gratefully, although I don’t choose to stay and talk, still inwardly shamed.
Back at my seat, a thought strikes me me and I text an old journalism colleague to let him know about the travel chaos, which is always a favourite of the local paper. He immediately texts back to say he’s interested. One quick chat with the woman and her granddaughter and their details are down in my phone, should my old colleague want to follow up the story. After choosing to stay quiet, at least I wasn’t being entirely impotent. They’re a lovely pair on their way to visit family in Somerset and tell me they were literally pushed onto a crammed carriage and had the door slammed on their backs. No wonder they were stressed earlier. I wish them a Happy Easter as they get off at Taunton.
There’s still a quiet anger inside me at the absolute shambles I’ve seen over the course of the journey. Part of me wishes I’d taken photos of the chaos, or even had a recording device to take voxes. Then I remember I’m not a journalist anymore and wouldn’t get paid for any of this, sense of injustice at what I’ve seen, or not.
Ironically, when I arrived at my parents’ house, my mother told me she’d been watching an item on the local news about the improvements First Great Western had made to their service. With a bit of luck, there’s soon be another report about their inability to get simple ticketing operations right on busy days.
You can take the boy out of journalism, etc etc.