Thursday, September 28, 2006

Harnessing the Lightening

From the golden age of railways.

The clock tower on top of St. Pancreas Station in London.

I went to London today. (Note 1)

The warning signs were there, good yeomen. I just chose to ignore them. I woke up feeling like an extra from ‘Sean and the Dead’. As a result, my ablutions took longer than normal and I was a few minutes later than hoped leaving the house.

Arriving at Peterborough Station, I found myself confronted with a dilemma. Should I break into a trot and catch the train waiting at the platform? Should I buy myself a coffee and catch a later train?

In a reality far, far away (which may or may not be affiliated to Network Rail), a red light flickered on a control panel. A young lad issues a mild expletive, throws his newspaper to one side and saunters across. He taps the offending red bulb. It flickers and then stays lit. An asthmatic alarm sounds. The young lad shrugs and returns to his paper.

The lure of the fast train (only two stops) proved too much. I promised myself a lesuirely designer Mocha when I arrived in London, and broke into the approximation of a trot. (Note 2)

The asthmatic alarm takes a couple of puffs from its inhaler and develops into an insistent whine. The young lad issues a stronger expletive and strides over to the control panel. He prods at the reset button with a grimy finger. Several more prods have no effect. He turns as if to walk away but swings round and prods the button again. The button has seen it all before and isn’t easily fooled. The young lad mutters under his breath and reaches for the red phone.

The train pulled into Huntingdon without incident. The train filled with commuters. We arrived at St Neots, more commuters piled in. I waited for the beeping and for the doors to close, yet nothing happened. Minutes dragged past. Before a “Bing Bong” imported direct from suburbia announced the driver was about to speak. (Note 3) The news wasn’t good. There was a power supply problem in the Alexander Palace area. The driver said he was sorry and promised us more information as soon as he had it.

The phone rang in the engineers rapid response room. In unison, five engineers rolled over grunted and resumed their slumber. The sixth engineer, the supervisor was busy arranging his ritual of the daily bowel movement and did not hear the phone over his own heavy breathing.

Our train was joined in St Neots station by one of the posher, GNER variety. Passengers tentatively stepped out onto the platform and mingled in a scene reminiscent of Christmas 1914 in no mans land. Cigarettes were smoked. Numerous cell phones appeared and diaries hastily re-arranged. Smartly dressed GNER hostesses were handing out complimentary coffee and pastries. Us poor First Capital Connect passengers looked on in envy

The supervisor returns to the rapid response room and the ringing phone. He observes his team in the slumber aims a kick at the nearest and answers the phone.

Some of the passengers started to drift away from the train. These were the hardened commuters. These were the veteran commuters the ones who had seen it all before. I could have saved it then. I could have learned from the veterans and headed back to car at Peterborough. But I didn’t. I clung to a forlorn hope that we would soon be moving…

With a flurry of kicks and blows, the supervisor rouses Network Rail’s finest. There is a rush for the toilets. Barely fifteen minutes after the call the team are assembled by their liveried vehicles. A mere ten minutes later, they find the keys.

A couple of the passengers on my train mingle with the GNER passengers and return with complimentary coffee and pastry. I struggle with my conscience. It would be wrong for me to filch the coffee reserved for the privileged. Yet my need for caffeine gnawed at my insides. The driver saved my soul. A cheery “Bing Bong” and the flat dry delivery that the train was about to moved had me returning to my seat empty handed. At least I could grin at the envious looks coming from the GNER train.

A cloud of diesel smoke rises over North London as the engineers head out to Alexander Palace. Pausing only to buy newspapers and to check the local cinema listings, they speed to the centre of the crisis.

Welcome to Sandy. Yes, but apart from the RSPB, what else is there?

The train sped through the countryside, only to come to a halt in Sandy Beds. On comes the driver. He has no news, but if he gets any, he promises it to share it with us. More passengers drift away.

Another contented commuter. I love this photograph. It captures the resignation to our plight.

The engineers arrive an argument ensues. After much finger pointing and accusing stares, the apprentice is dispatched to purchase bacon rolls. The engineers sit at the trackside and wait for him to return.

The announcer at Sandy must have been suffering from Laryngitis. There were announcements, but they came out as a barely audible whisper. The remaining passengers took turns at trying to decipher the news. In the end we exchanged travellers tales. The winner was an elderly lady who recounted that during a flurry of the wrong type of snow, the passengers had resorted to eating a ticket inspector to stay alive. As our Inspector was nowhere to be seen, I began to suspect that he had been kidnapped by GNER and was already being made into lunch.

The apprentice returns and is given a cuff around the ear for forgetting the brown sauce. After devouring the rolls the engineers inspect the wires, taking it in turns to scratch their heads and suck at hollow teeth.

Bring me your downtrodden commuters and I will show them despair.

Nearly an hour later, the GNER train thundered past. The mood on the train started to turn nasty.

Shortly afterwards we started to move. On came the driver. “Bing Bong” the train was now going to stop at all stations to Welwyn Garden City where it would terminate and the passengers would transfer to buses. At Stevenage, the passengers from the GNER train crammed into ours. The atmosphere was cosy.

The engineers have a plan. The apprentice is told to don rubber boots and handed a long metal pole. The supervisor sends him down the tracks to test the wires for tame lightening.

The transfer to buses worked really well for me. I had backed away from the ugly scrum forming around the line of old London double decker buses. I found myself standing by a young girl in a Network Rail uniform. It was her second week in the job. She had been at the front of the scrum and barely escaped with her life. Apparently, her bosses had all gone AWOL. The group of us taking refuge from the elbows and umbrellas sympathised. The girl smiled and directed us to a coach round the corner which departed with the minimum of fuss.

The engineers appear disappointed that the apprentice returns unharmed and go in a huddle. A book is fetched from the van.

There is a twist in the tail for us. The bus doesn’t head towards London. Instead it heads for St Albans. We pull up in front of the railways station of the ancient Roman town (or Chugemprium in Latin). We transfer to another train that lurches into London – some five hours after I set out! As I went onto the underground, they were announcing that no trains were leaving or entering Kings Cross.

The engineers puzzled over the book for hours. Eventually they ask a passer by who explains the strange wriggles on the paper. A glimmer of inspiration appears on the supervisors face and he pulls a fuse from the pocket of his overalls.

Thankfully, the fuse fixed the problem. All was back to normal for the homeward trip. It took barely an hour. All I can do is thank that first driver. Without him, I think I would have gone mad.

From 14th June, the industry standard Crozzy Standard has been applied to footnotes.

NOTE 1: To which, I believe, the standard response is “Well, someone had to.” Click to return

NOTE 2 : It wasn’t really a choice that made any difference. The solid yeoman, Murphy has a law for such occasions that means whatever choice I made would have been the wrong one. It was destined that the commute would cause time to trickle between my fingers like over ripe Camembert. Click to return

NOTE 3: A driver wasted driving trains. He had a laconic, deadpan delivery, a mastery of the words ‘If’ and ‘when’. If I was hyper critical, I would say he has been watching a little too much “Have I got News for You” – far to much use of the word allegedly. Still, he managed to capture the mood of gallows humour beginning to spread through the train. Click to return

NOTE 4: Beds is of course an abbreviation for Bedfordshire. It is just that my rather childish sense of humour always has me chuckling over “Sandy Beds”. Click to return

The apparatus that harnesses the lightening.

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1 comment:

The Mad Yank of Yorkshire said...

Thank you kindly for the inspiration.