The surreal world of England’s railways

It was a grey, cold, miserable afternoon today – in case anyone hadn’t noticed…

We arrived at Huntingdon station soon after 16.00, only to discover that we had just missed the 15.59 train to King’s Cross!  Buoyed by a fine lunch (at The Old Bridge) and some strong coffee we prepared to sit out the wait until the next train at 16.33. But then something must have shifted in the planetary alignments, and we entered a world that even the best imaginations could scarcely conjure up.

Over the loudspeaker an announcement came that northbound trains had been delayed at Sandy because of a trespasser on the tracks.  Oh well, the indicator board showed that the 16.33 was still scheduled, so that should be fine – or so we thought!  Unfortunately, a very helpful railway employee then told us that the train that would form the 16.33 from Peterborough was actually the train that was stuck at Sandy, still waiting to go north through Huntingdon on its way to Peterboroough.  It would be at least 40 minutes before we could catch it on its way back south, even once it had arrived at Huntingdon on its way north!

While looking if there were any alternative solutions, we heard another announcement over the speakers that the 16.33 would shortly be arriving.  So, through the ticket barriers and out onto the platform we went.  Imagine our surprise when the kindly railway employee came out and apologised that this was an automated message that bore no resemblance to the truth – or words to that effect.  He had no idea when a train might actually come.

Time for Plan B!  The thought of staying on Huntingdon station for what could be well over an hour did not fill us with excitement.  So, we decided to take a taxi south to Stevenage, where there were at least trains on different lines that could then take us on our way.  Taxi rides are always interesting – and this one was no exception with the driver waxing eloquent about the deficiencies of the potential Chancellors on the televised debate last night, Tottenham Hotspur’s current footballing success, and the UK’s social benefits system.

And then we arrived at Stevenage – to see a train pulling away as we rushed over the footbridge and onto the platform.  That’s where the adventure really began.  Fast – very fast – train after train rushed by on the tracks without stopping, and every time the indicator board suggested that a train might actually take us on to King’s Cross, it was either cancelled or the clock simply added minutes to its expected time of arrival as we watched.  The cold wind chilled us as we waited patiently on the platform.  Surely a train must come soon.   We put our hope in the 17.34, which somehow seemed to be likely – not least because its expected arrival time did not change.  Bang on 17.34 a train whisked past – without stopping!  Dismay!  But then, not long afterwards, a train did stop, and some of us eagerly boarded.  What could be wrong with this?  Imagine our dismay when we were told to get off the train because it was only dropping off passengers – and no one was allowed to get on!  But many of the other trains had been cancelled – and there were many of us waiting to get to King’s Cross!  Surely they would let us stay on board.  The train had after all stopped, and we had got on.  Some of us stood our ground.  The announcements over the train’s speakers got more aggressive; the train would not leave until we got off.  The anger on the faces of the other passengers was visibly rising.  Some of us stuck our ground.  But then most people left, and fearing we might be ‘shopped’ by the other, now really quite irritated,  passengers on the train we gave in and left the train.  This was not, though, to be the end.  We pleaded with the rail officials – but to no avail.  I pleaded with other travellers to take communal action and board the train – but no-one moved. They must have thought me a revolutionary firebrand! Eventually, after an unexpectedly long delay at Stevenage, that train departed.  Talking with the kind RMT official on duty at Stevenage afterwards, he told us that the conductor on the First Hull Trains train had simply refused to consider letting other delayed passengers on board, because this train was only meant to let passengers alight.

Back into the cold, damp, darkening environment of dismal Stevenage railway station. The 17.39 seemed the most promising new bet, but it was going to be at least 30 minutes delayed because of a faulty train at Royston.  The indicator’s kept us amused as trains were scheduled on time well after they should have left; others were cancelled.  One of the best messages was “Delayed due to earlier train running late”

    Eventually, a train did arrive to take us onwards – at 18.08.  Just beforehand, a kindly announcer stated that “The train may be full” and that another one was to follow on behind shortly.  Fortunately, we were all able to squeeze on board, and eventually arrived at King’s Cross by about 18.45.  To be fair, this was only an hour later than the time that the 16.33 from Huntingdon would have arrived in London, but our surreal experiences made it feel very much longer! Thanks Siobhan and Robin for the adventure!


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