Or, The Cluster-fuck That Has Been My Public Transport Experience Recently.
During the last year, I have traveled quite extensively. Over the Summer, I had three separate trips to Scandinavia, and spread quite evenly over the last 12 months has been a series of gigs, largely in and around London. This has meant regular use of the network of public transport services in the Midlands and South-East of England. While buses and trains tend to be a little bit shabby as a rule, it’s nothing especially awful, and the odd delay here and there is nothing more than a bit of a nuisance.
Recently however, my experience of public transport has escalated rapidly from being ‘a bit of a nuisance’ to being ‘fucking shocking’ laced with a healthy dose of ‘complete incompetence and failure to give a shit that this is a service that people are paying for’.
While the local buses come with their own very special, smelly and noisy set of problems, I am pointing my finger very firmly in the direction of London Midland trains. Since the end of September, I have been traveling on a weekly basis into London for Norwegian language lessons, since there are no classroom based lessons more local to me. Adding this into the existing schedule of gigs and other activities, it has meant that I have been traveling into the capital on average twice a week for the last 3 months. I have had my eyes well and truly opened to the problems that exist within public transport.
I would like to state for the record that I bloody love the London Tube system. I have found over the years that underground trains and metros really appeal to me in a way that I don’t quite understand; I find them really comfortable environments, and I especially love the hot mechanical smell of the air…don’t judge me. The London Underground system is fast, efficient, reliable, and will get you wherever you need to be. Once you are in London, traveling is no kind of hardship. It’s getting TO London in the first place that is the issue.
It is really difficult for me to understand why traveling has been such a problem recently. London is one direct train journey from Northampton, between 57 and 87 minutes away, depending on your level of planning and/or blind luck. Simple, non? Actually, non. For the first 5 weeks of my evening course, every single train that I took to get home was delayed, and frequently the train going in was also subject to problems. After that initial period, on the infrequent occasions that my train wasn’t delayed, the ones before it were, so I ended out being stood nose to nose with the great unwashed for the majority of the journey home.
There is nothing more confusing and frustrating, when you have somewhere that you need to be, than standing on the train platform, looking back along the tracks at the train you need to be on, which is sat stationary, just looking at you blankly and scratching itself. Or the week after, when you get on the train and it simply doesn’t move for 25 minutes. Granted, they have gotten much better recently at keeping the commuter informed, but somehow knowing that they have cancelled your train because someone didn’t turn up for work isn’t a great comfort. Presumably, the only person without whom the train cannot operate would be the driver, and I would like to think they had a fucking contingency plan in place for something happening to the person who makes the train move.
All of these things are irritating, but being British we just accept that our public transport systems are shit in the same way that we accept it’s likely to rain at some point on any given day of the year. However, on the 10th November 2014 something happened that tipped me over the edge from British Disappointment, into a pit of abject, howling fury.
It was a Monday, and I had headed into London to go and see Rise Against at Brixton Academy (or the 02 Academy Brixton, whatever the kids are calling it these days). It was an absolutely blinding gig [literally, in fact; the lighting guy there has a serious hard-on for bursts of white spotlights aimed right into the crowd], and genuinely one of the best concerts I have ever been to. Afterwards, I skipped happily back to the tube station, and jumped on the Victoria line back up to Euston. As you come out of the tube station into the Euston overground rail station proper, you come up the escalator and turn to the right, where you are met with the warm, loving glow of the departure boards…
…which on this occasion were mostly black. To say that was unsettling is an understatement. I panicked and double checked the time in case somehow I had screwed up and it was much later than I had thought. It wasn’t, but there were only a couple of boards lit up on the left-hand side, and none of the trains went back to Northampton. There should have been at least three more trains due that evening. Shit. How the fuck am I supposed to get home? Why the hell are there no trains back to Northampton?? What’s happened?
Well, that was a question I continued to ask myself for quite a while because there were no announcements. I went over the the Virgin trains desk (since I couldn’t see where the London Midland desk even was, and the main information booth was closed). I figured if something had happened then someone would have mentioned it to the other train operator, since Virgin trains go through Northampton too…but he had no idea what was happening either. In a bit of a frenzy, I ended out getting on the first train to Milton Keynes, since that’s as close as I could get to home.
While I was on the train, there were no announcements explaining what had happened. I put a somewhat miffed post on Facebook, and my friends kindly did some research on my behalf. Apparently the London Midland website stated that there were planned works taking place that meant no trains would be traveling past Milton Keynes after 20:30 that evening…
So, when I bought my SAME DAY RETURN ticket from NORTHAMPTON at 18:30 that evening, would it not have been fucking pertinent to mention I couldn’t ACTUALLY return to Northampton? How long would it have taken to get someone to even write on a bit of sodding paper and stick it to the ticket machine? Would it not have also been a good idea to perhaps use one of the departure boards in Euston maybe to explain? I know they’re really pleased with themselves over all of the ongoing line upgrades and how wonderful the service will be in the future, but how about thinking just a little bit about the people who are actually traveling right now?
Apparently, the website also stated there was a replacement bus service from Milton Keynes to Northampton, although there was no mention of this at Euston… or on the train… or in Milton Keynes station itself when I eventually got there. I went outside the front of the station and there was no sign of a bus. I ended out getting a taxi home, and while £25 is pretty reasonable in terms of a fare of that distance, it was £25 I really shouldn’t have had to pay.
If I had been given the information that I couldn’t get back past Milton Keynes, I could have driven there and parked where the train finished instead of leaving my car in Northampton. Or I could have gone to Wellingborough and got the train into St Pancras station. Or I could have decided simply not go to to London in the first place. I would have had options. Yes, not having a train home is a ballache, but the very worst thing was the lack of information and the utter disregard for passengers, a.k.a. their paying customers.
I am generally a calm and rational person but I was absolutely livid. I was the most annoyed I had been in a very long time, so much so that I was being totally obnoxious in the hope that someone on the train would start a fight with me. I have a sneaking suspicion that I may have been more worried about getting home than I cared to admit to. And that was me, good at dealing with stressful situations. What if I had been a less confident person? What if I had suffered from some anxiety disorder? What if I didn’t have the money to get a taxi home? Regardless of how capable I am of dealing with stressful situations, leaving a lone female passenger with no way to get home at night is a bit fucking shitty to say the least.
The next day, I had to go into London again for language lessons. I checked the website before I left, and I had to dig about to even find where the notifications about changes to service were. When I was at the station, I discovered that there was one board that displayed the notifications, on the platform (…after the point that you have already bought your ticket…), tucked away up in the corner behind your left shoulder where you wouldn’t even see it unless you were specifically looking for it, or were taking an intense interest in the courtship activities of the pigeons in the roofspace. Even then, it was mostly scrolling notifications where London Midland was sucking itself off over how wonderful the improvements it was making to the infrastructure were.
Fuck you, London Midland. Fuck you for all the hours of my life I will never get back. Fuck you for the years that your stress has taken off of my lifespan. Fuck you most of all for being my only option.