It would be unrealistic to expect public transport to work flawlessly all the time, and maybe it’s unfair to snipe at it. It is after all burdened with inbuilt failings, such as starting from somewhere you aren’t, and taking you to somewhere you don’t quite want to be. We accept that: if it’s for everyone, it’s going to be inconvenient for everyone too.
But surely it is realistic to expect those in charge of public transport to make every kind of effort to make it as convenient as possible. All right, railway lines need to be maintained, and maintenance has to be done some time. But…
I returned to Norwich from a holiday in Europe halfway through a Saturday evening. Of course, the rail and tube managers didn’t know that. I mean, that almost never happens, does it? At the same time a goodly number of Norwich City supporters were returning to Norwich from a Chelsea game: another of those unpredictable events. And lots of people were moving around London. Who would have thought?
I was lucky to start with. I bought an Underground ticket from the ticket office at St Pancras, and was told (instead of having to work it out by trial and error) that the normal route to Liverpool Street was closed. I had to go to Holborn and change on to the Central line. Fair enough; I lived in London for a few years, and I know how that works. What I hadn’t anticipated was that King’s Cross/St Pancras is a focal point on the Underground, and everybody had to do this. Everybody is an awful lot of people.
The platforms were full, the trains were packed, and the escalators weren’t working properly. By ruthless use of our luggage, we were able to get on a couple of trains, however, and eventually we reached Liverpool Street, where we looked eagerly for a sign telling us which train went to Norwich, because it was getting late.
There was nothing. Norwich had been wiped from the universe, as far as Liverpool Street was concerned. As a last resort, I endeavoured to interest a guy on the Information desk, and he told me to go to Platform 14, which turned out to be empty. Slightly concerned, I told a nearby station official that I wanted to get to Norwich. “You’ll be lucky,” he riposted in a merry way. I did not feel lucky.
However, he did direct us to a train for Southend, from which unlikely vehicle, he told us, we should alight at Billericay, mount a coach to Witham and from there slip into a train to Norwich. We followed his instructions and sat for a while on a nearly empty train, getting more and more uneasy. Then an assorted crew joined us, prominent among them a group of Canary supporters with hands full of Big Macs. I anticipated the worst. City had lost 4-1.
What a pessimistic Mr Grumpy I am. The supporters turned out to be good-humoured and chatty throughout the journey. If some of them had had full control of their bodily functions, they would have been perfect travelling companions. In the coach between charming Billericay and gentle Witham they kept up a witty banter with a young and rather posh girl who was trying to persuade them to come to her party. They had a much firmer grasp on reality than she did, and even the coach driver appreciated their jolly enlivenment of the journey.
The coaches, by the way, were excellent. They took us from where we were to where we had to be in comfort and style. What can I say?
At Witham a train was waiting for us, together with some rail officials humorously bearing the words “Customer Services” on their yellow jackets. I may be wrong, but they did not seem keen to be there.
You might expect that a train company that had been forced to inconvenience large numbers of its passengers would try to make up for it in some way. I would suggest making sure that the substitute trains were in good order and left at frequent intervals. Instead, we waited for half an hour while further passengers trickled in, and did not get going until even after the allocated departure time of 11.10pm (we had left Liverpool Street just after 9.30). The train itself felt even older than me, creaking and groaning in and out of every station as it shuffled its way towards Norwich.
But what I would definitely do if I was a train company (an unlikely event) would be to make sure there was a buffet car on board. Actually, what I would do is provide free food and drink, but a buffet car would have done. I began to see headlines like “City fans run amok on train”, but again my expectations were too low. Or maybe the fans were too tired.
We eventually alighted from the train in Norwich just after 12.30am. Again we were lucky: we live only a couple of hundred yards from the station. As we emerged we saw a long queue of despairing passengers, and no taxis in sight.