Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A Tale of Two Cities - and neither was the right one.

Hello webby buddies!

Last Thursday I was going to Birmingham in preparation for Friday's Women In Radio event. Mark was coming home from London about 10pm, so Mum and Dad kindly offered to  drive over from North Wales to collect the kids from school and look after them in the interim. I booked my train tickets and a night in a capsule hotel. I researched things to do in Birmingham that evening and learnt the route from hotel to event.  I would arrive at the event rested, refreshed and prepared. Everything was organised.

And then came the weather.

Trains were disrupted heading to Scotland, my radio told me. My train was still going on time, claimed the mendacious National Rail Enquiries website. Ever the Girl Guide, I set off an hour early to compensate for bus disruption and a difficult walk across town. I arrived at Leeds station to find out my 12:11 train was running 10 minutes late, so I popped to the wonderful Laynes to grab a coffee.

Back at the station with 20 minutes until my train, I heard the annoucer say it was cancelled. 3 minutes later it was back on but delayed until 12:28. The 12:41. Then 12:52. Then cancelled.

By this time I'd acquired a retinue - an older lady going to her granddaughter's house, a young student going home to Northampton and a young Polish woman whose excellent English didn't extend to understanding platform announcements. Three of them had stood staring at the Departures board on the platform near me at the start, and during the various platform changes asked if they I could show them which one to stand on. We did the commuter version of The Grand Old Duke Of York - marching up and down the overhead concourse.

The beleaguered blokes at the information desk told us all to head to Manchester because they had trains running to Birmingham. One Manchester train was late and the next delayed 20 minutes. We were sardines in a slow moving tin, rerouted around a fallen tree and Dewsbury and waiting for a free platform outside Manchester. Those trying to get to the airport to catch flights were heading towards hysteria, the poor souls.

Upon arrival in Manchester Lena, Beena and Susan, my multi-generational girl band and I sought the next Birmingham train. Hurray, we would catch the delayed 14:07! Except we wouldn't. It was cancelled. As were the next four. There was a hope I could get a London train to Northampton (bye, Beena!) and head back up to Birmingham from there. However, reports were sketchy about trains from Northampton and I didn't want to get stranded too far away from both my destination and home.

News! Trains from Leeds were going to Birmingham now. We all piled onto the platform to head back the way we came. Then no, someone's friend in Leeds asked the station staff there and the rumour was quashed. Nothing was heading to the midlands for the next few hours.

"It's Cross Country," said the Transpenine staff. "All the other companies have given us some information about what's happening but Cross Country aren't keeping anyone informed. It's anyone's guess what's happening. There's nothing coming north of Birmingham and nothing from here north of Preston."

"Until  they tell us more, we're getting our information from the Departures board the same as the passengers," said the nice woman from Network Rail. "We know a tree fell on the overhead lines near Crewe and caught fire. But we have no idea how the clear up operation is going. They said up to a three hour delay when they got in touch at 2:15  p.m." This was at 5:15.

Yes, I had missed the last train to Birmingham by 10 minutes because of that re-routing around Dewsbury. Oh joys. But surely now the three hour window was up we'd get moving again? The 17:40 went on the Departures board and we all felt a surge of hope. With a few minutes to go that too was cancelled.

Those of us from Leeds were over 5 hours delayed by this time. The resigned expressions on our faces were starting to look strained.  I wondered how the station staff were faring. It couldn't have been an easy shift to work.

"If anyone gives me aggro today I'm off! So far people have been fine but you can see them getting more and more frustrated. I understand, but I'm frustrated too and I can't help them. It's been mad." That nice Network Rail woman was looking fed up.

"I thought there would be more argy bargy," the British Transport Policeman said, "but so far it's just been people looking fed up."
"And we can't blame them for that," his colleague chipped in, indicating the display of cancelled and delayed trains. "It's a nightmare."

Susan went to book a place on a coach. Lena did the same, but I saw her later. "Coaches are full," she said. "So is my hotel," said a woman nearby. "Wish I hadn't checked out this morning." 5 blokes decided to go in together on car hire. Several people were complaining loudly that when flights are this delayed they at least get cuppas and sandwiches.
I paid 30p to use the toilet. I begrudged it. It seemed small-minded to make stranded passengers pay for using the toilets when they were stuck in the station for 5 or 6 hours. The change machine swallowed my 50p and only spat 40p out. The bloke cleaning the loos bumped into the lady in front and all her bags went everywhere.

A group of men collecting for a charity for blind dogs approached passengers every few minutes. Not dogs for the blind, dogs who were themselves visually impaired. That is a very niche charity. The men remained undaunted by asking the same crowd of passengers that had been there for hours. Surely we'd be less likely to give to blind puppies the more we were badgered? Or perhaps they hoped we'd donate just to get the sticker to get them to stop asking.

I couldn't take it. I needed to get to Birmingham. I needed a sit down. I needed something other than an M&S sandwich and a cup of lousy coffee from a kiosk. I needed something good to happen.

I went to Sainsbury's to buy a bottle of water. On the end of the aisle were big boxes of chocolate biscuits at two for £5. If something good doesn't happen when you need it to, lateral thinking is the way to go. I bought 2 boxes and headed back to the concourse.

"My fellow passengers! I am having a lousy day. I've been stuck here for hours. I suspect most of you are having a lousy day too. In order to offer something nice in these trying circumstances, I have bought us all chocolate biscuits. Please take one and pass the box to your neighbour."

I actually got a cheer. A little one, but still. Those who didn't want chocolate biscuits (how can that happen?) still smiled and passed the boxes on. Small kids grabbed several before their mums could object and I grinned. It's hard being bored when you are small. Someone offered me his seat. Someone else came over to wish me luck on my journey.

With remaining biscuits I went to the station staff. The Transpenine blokes were delighted to have some. The Transport Police, though...

"No thanks, love. The wife's got me on that Dukan diet," said the first.
"It's Slimfast for me," said his partner. Two big tall men looking tough and gruff in true Northern Bloke fashion turning down biscuits because they are on fad diets; I couldn't quite suppress a grin.

By 6:15 my Network Rail woman told me, "Officially, I have no new information. Unofficially, give it up for today - from here at least. It might be better in Leeds." Obviously everything is better in Leeds, I thought loyally. And I took her advice.

When the next (delayed) train arrived for Leeds I got on and retraced the journey I'd made 6 hours before. Leeds station was much quieter than it had been in the morning, so I had a glimmer of hope that trains were running. But no. The display board still showed all trains to Birmingham as cancelled and the information kiosk staff were pessimistic.

"We could try sending you to Sheffield and then to Peterborough and see if you can get to Birmingham along that line but I can't guarantee it. Leeds to York, York to London, walk from Kings Cross to Euston and then Euston to Birmingham could work, but you might not make the last train from Euston to Birmingham and be stuck there. Just go home, love. Try again in the morning. I don't know about the 6 o'clock train but by the 8 o'clock train surely they'll be running."

The Women In Radio event started at 8:45am, meaning it was the 6 o'clock train or miss it. I felt ready to cry. Dad picked me up from the station and offered to drive me down early in the morning. I couldn't even express appropriate gratitude, so exhausted was I from all that fruitless waiting in Leeds - Manchester - Leeds. I was grubby, anxious and and so stressed about not getting to the event I was ready to explode. A message from my lovely mate Andy sent at 7pm offering to drive me to Birmingham reduced me to tears. Such a kind offer. Sadly it was gone 9:00 when I'd got back to Leeds to receive it.

Ironically, the travel disruption meant that Mark headed back from London on an earlier train than planned and got in at 9:40. "I'll drive you. Let me just grab a cuppa." There's a reason I love him so much.

So, 10 1/2 hours later than planned, 15 hours after I'd initially set off I arrived with Mark in Birmingham. A bit late to manage that early night, but who cares. BBC Women In Radio, I was ready and waiting.


  1. Jay, your wonderfulness (and M's!) moves me to tears. You have such an amazing talent for making people feel good about themselves. You should be on the radio for the simple reason that more people should have the chance to love you.

  2. The biscuit move was inspired. I shall store that up and remember to use it myself someday. My journey too was disrupted, but not quite so stressfully as yours. So I'm more than ever grateful that I got to meet you on such an important day