Plagued by the Trains

I commute regularly. That shouldn’t strike fear into the hearts and minds of anyone with similar experiences – or even anyone who has even a vague interest in an effective public transport system – but it does. It strikes horror into my heart these days, especially when I see the dreaded word “delayed” or – even worse – the horrendous word “cancelled”.

Reggie Perrin, that brilliant comedy series back in the 1970s (and repeated enough in the 1980s for me to catch it and realise what a damn good show it was), satirised the awfulness of the rail network back then. It might have got better since then, nigh-on fifty years later, but the humour is still as topical now as it ever was. The excuses given for Reggie’s late train were ever more farcical, but actually not outside the realms of reality. Here are some of my favourite examples;

  • “Eleven minutes late, staff difficulties at Hampton Wick.”
  • “Eleven minutes late, seasonal manpower shortages, Clapham Junction.”
  • “Eleven minutes late, somebody had stolen the lines at Surbiton.”
  • “Seventeen minutes late, defective bogey at Earlsfield.”
  • “Seventeen minutes late, water seeping through the cables at Effingham Junction – there was a lot of Effingham and a good deal of Blindingham!”
  • “Twenty-two minutes late, black ice at Norbiton.”
  • “Twenty-two minutes late, obstacles on the line at Berrylands.”
  • “Twenty-two minutes late, badger ate a junction box at New Malden.”
  • “Twenty-two minutes late, fed up by train delays, came by bike. Slow puncture at Peckham.”
  • “Twenty-two minutes late, escaped puma, Chessington North.”

I’ve just found some clips on Youtube and chortled for the best part of five minutes whilst listening to them. But then I stopped and actually thought about it, and became rather depressed, because the excuses given in real life aren’t very much different at all.

An even more ridiculous reason halted services recently, in far more absurd circumstances than the fictional ones I’ve already mentioned; a man with no shirt was using the tracks for some sort of audition.

The trespassing incident at Norwood Junction station saw the man repeatedly refuse to get back on to the platform during the evening rush hour before police arrived with Tasers.

All attempts to persuade the man, who said he wanted to be on YouTube, to leave the track reportedly failed. He was later seen running off towards East Croydon.

Lines were eventually reopened at around 7.30pm, the Mirror reported, but with police unable to locate the trespasser the trains ran slower as a “precaution”.

Earlier in the day, travellers faced delays after a swan ventured onto the tracks at Staines station.

According to the Evening Standard, South West Trains passengers were told the disruption on the Waterloo to Reading route occurred because the bird was “refusing to move”.

I despair. But I must share with you some more examples of awful excuses that just make me want to sob into my hot chocolate, because they’re entirely far from what I’ve experienced.

1. Announcing the cancellation of the 8.16 to Bedford. “This is due to slippery rain.”

2. Heard on an April morning. The train is delayed because of “dew on the tracks”.

3. On the train from St Pancras to Derby. “We apologise for the late running of this service. This was due to excessive heat on the tracks between Bedford and Luton.” (It was the first sunny day of the year.)

4. In the first commuter magazine of The Southend Rail Travellers’ Association, dated 1948, excuses were being made that locomotives were failing at Fenchurch Street because of “the wrong kind of coal”.

5. Announcement at Bournemouth station: “The train now arriving on platform one is on fire. Passengers are advised not to board this train.”

6. On the line from Cardiff to London. Delays have been caused by “a giant clown on the line”. (This related to an inflatable Ronald McDonald which had blown from the roof of a restaurant onto the South Wales main line.)

7. At Wembley Central, a delay was announced due to “illegal immigrants on the line”. (The police were chasing them up the track and requested all power be turned off.)

8. To a platform of passengers waiting for the train from Woking to Waterloo. Delays were caused because somebody had climbed on to the signals near Weybridge and was taking pot shots at passing trains.

9. On a packed train, with many standing for the full journey from Newcastle to London, the conductor apologised that the overcrowding was caused by “too many passengers”.

10. Heard at a London Underground station: “We apologise for the delay to customers on platform one. This is due to a delay in the actual service.” Well, at least they’re honest.

I experienced a classic in the genre of excuses recently; the trains were cancelled because of a tree being blown onto the tracks. Fair enough in itself – no train can yet drive over a tree – but for it to take three hours to be chopped into small enough pieces (when rush-hour commuters are heading to work) is rather excessive. I was talking to one incredibly friendly station attendant (seriously, they need to clone him and use his personality for all station staff), who told me of one incident when another tree had collapsed onto the track, and the member of staff sent out to deal with the problem was dispatched with a handsaw. I don’t think he was particularly popular that day. But waiting three hours for any sign of movement was dispiriting to say the least, and I was on the verge of offering my services with a handsaw of my own to speed things up when I realised that I had no talent for manual work in any way, shape, or form.

I had another wonderful example today; it’s Monday as I write this part of the blog, and there seems to be something about Mondays that causes South Eastern Trains to have a minor breakdown. Perhaps because it’s the start of the week, I don’t know, but it doesn’t cope with timetables on Mondays. My usual evening train was today cancelled because of a moron on the train needing the police to intervene. Well, I can respect that; if a commuter is going to be that much of a moron, then absolutely – don’t even hesitate to contact the police. But once the idiot was removed, the train was then cancelled. This boggles my mind; does it yours? The moron had been removed from the train; there was nothing wrong with the service any more. It was perfectly safe once more, and yet South Eastern cancelled the service. Perhaps I’m missing something. But I can’t see what.

Stupidity so often rules in our society these days, and I was reminded of precisely that when talking to the guard on the train I finally caught today. He told me that he was a last-minute replacement and that, if he hadn’t gone on the line, that train would have been cancelled due to staff shortages. I struggled to understand that; sickness is always going to be a surprised, I can respect that, but there’s an issue when it affects peoples’ journeys home, especially after a long day at work. Cancelling a train because everything’s back to normal or because you’re caught off guard at 5 o’clock in the afternoon seems rather excessive to me.

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