25 February 2008

Blood on the tracks

At a job interview once, I was asked why I wanted to move away from working in London to a firm more local to home. "Ask me that at seven o'clock on a cold morning on Didcot station" I replied. Or half an hour either side of seven o'clock in the evening at Paddington. You can tell how bad it makes me feel from the incredible insensitivity of my choice of title ...
There had been a fatality at Southall, so the announcements said. There are fatalities all over the rail network, at least one a week or so it seems, and they cause the whole system to go into meltdown. In fact, it has a very low melting point indeed.
"Fatality" is one of those terms of art used on the railway system that must have the approval of the lawyers. It covers every conceivable reason for death, without using the word itself. Is it friendlier than any alternative? Deaths on the railways are bad news, and the railways might be blamed for them, but fatalities sound a little more unavoidable. And of course it could be a passenger having a heart attack: we should not assume it is a passenger being knifed (not one I have ever heard of, to be fair) or defenestrated (again, to be scrupulously fair, it was the doors, not the windows, that used to open unexpectedly when a passenger, or "sardine", was unwise enough to apply pressure to it, but any excuse to use the word "defenestrated" cries out to be taken). It could be a car hit on a level crossing, or it could be someone committing suicide in the messiest and (for the driver) most distressing fashion. Opinion tonight favours the last of these - as the explanation, that is, not as a response to the delays.
The result is several cancellations (some later reinstated). I arrived in time for the 1830, which was "full and standing" as the railway operators say, or like a can of sardines, as humourless paying customers would have it. Indeed, even the platform was full and standing, so I gave up and went in seach of the 1848.
On the bridge, the screens told a woeful story of cancellations, but there were still a few trains leaving. The 1845 - my mistake from the other day - was called and a stampede ensued. By a process of elimination the 1848 identified itself, but confirmation came from a wheelchair bound lady who had been loaded onto it. Of course one should not overlook the possibility that the railway staff put her on the wrong train, but it was the most compelling indication we were likely to receive of the train's intended destination.
Another lady passenger walking with the aid of two crutches had also been assured that this was the right train, so we took seats in coach A where we were joined by several others. An announcement eventually (about 1900) told us that trains on the next two platforms would leave before this one, so most of us crossed over the bridge where one train was already "full and standing" and the other turned out to be for Penzance - a route that does not pass through Didcot. I took a seat on it briefly before working out that I would be alighting from it at Reading to change to the 1848 anyway, so back to that train I went - up the stairs, over the bridge, down again. The lady with the crutches was still there.
After a while sitting in this train, a man clad in a fluorescent jacket entered the carriage an announced, in a conversational voice, that the train was cancelled. He might as well have said "this train's cancelled - pass it on". I got the message eventually, and stood up with the rest of the company to leave. One passenger expressed concern that after so many announcements on the Tannoy system we should now be obeying a poorly projected message from a man about whose credentials we were ignorant - fluorescent jackets being widely available. "It makes no sense," he complained. I advised him to seek sense in places other than railway stations.
Just then the Tannoy came alive again and we were told that the train was indeed cancelled but at the opposite platform - no need to cross the bridge! - was a train that would form the 1915 (it was alsready close to 1920) to Swansea, calling at Reading, Didcot ... So it was fifth time lucky, sixth if you count two boardings of the cancelled 1848.
I paused in the train lobby to phone home, and asked my current best friend - the one with the crutches - if she would please save a seat in case my phone call lasted long enough for the carriage to fill up. As it happened, I still had a wide choice of seat when I finished, and we left before half past - just an hour after I had entered the station.
At Reading, the train manager apologised for the late running of the train. He blamed it on the passengers from the cancelled 1848 all having to be transferred. That's a calumny in that it sounds as if it were our fault, and cannot be correct as passengers seeking to go to places between Swindon and Cheltenham will find this service of little use. I suppose they can alight at Swindon, and perhaps walk from there.

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