Robert Hampton

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18th December 2010

Screwed by three inches

You know when there’s lots of snow and the authorities only advise you to travel if its absolutely necessary? I wish I’d heeded that advice last night.

It was our office Christmas party last night. Despite the heavy snow forecast, I headed into town. The weather was clear when I left home, but I emerged from Central station at 7.30pm to discover that the snow had started coming down heavily.

Most of the Christmas party was spent anxiously checking various transport operators’ web sites on my mobile phone. At 11pm, with the weather worsening and rumours spreading about serious disruption on the railways, I decided to head for the station and get home.

Central station was in a scene of chaos: the departure board listing a lot of obviously fictitious trains (one train shown as “Expected 22:36” despite it being 23:05 by now). The man on the ticket barrier, besieged by inebriated people, could only explain that there was nothing moving on the Northern Line at all.

My workmate Karl, who had accompanied me to the station, tried to buy a ticket to the Wirral, but was refused because there was no guarantee of a train for him; he was told to simply go down to the platform and see if a train turned up. For all I know he was there all night, although the Wirral line did seem to be running sporadically.

There appeared to be no prospect of any train turning up (I later discovered via Jamie on Twitter that two fire-damaged trains were blocking the line) so I started to consider my alternative options. Bus was out as operators had pulled their vehicles off the impassable roads. Although a taxi would be an option, I could see there were long queues at every taxi rank with few actual cabs appearing.

Then I had another idea: there’s nothing moving on Merseyrail electrics, but how about a diesel service to Mossley Hill, which is about a 20 minute walk away from home? A quick check of National Rail enquiries mobile site revealed that there was a train at 23:38 from Lime Street. I left Central station (which by now had a large squadron of British Transport Police officers fighting off disgruntled passengers).

Lime Street was slightly less chaotic, but there was quite a crowd trying to get aboard the last few trains of the day. A Manchester Victoria train left passengers behind on the platform, although an announcement promised the stragglers that an extra train would be arranged for them.

I, meanwhile, was on what the platform indicators promised was my train: a darkened Pacer with the engine turned off and “Warrington” on the destination blind despite it supposedly going to Manchester. A hundred or so fellow travellers were with me.

The guard announced that standing passengers needed to get off so they could couple another train. The announcement was so muffled that few people heard it, but one man took it to mean that EVERYONE had to get off. Taking on the role of busybody, he started yelling at people to get off. A lot of people did, I think just to shut him up.

The train crew made several attempts to bang the two trains together, with very little success. We all stood on the platform, eagerly waiting for the train crew to unlock the doors again. We waited and then waited some more.

And waited…

And waited…

Eventually someone noticed that one door at the far end of the train was unlocked. Not wanting to be left behind, the crowd made a beeline for it and piled aboard. Safely ensconced aboard again, we settled down to wait some more.

It was now well past midnight and there was still no sign of it moving, and no staff in sight. I was now becoming seriously worried. A few phone calls revealed that anyone who could possibly give me a lift home was unavailable.

Eventually a Network Rail bod showed up on the platform and gestured for us to get off. No-one bothered to unlock the doors, so we all had to de-train via the single rear door. A stressed-looking man in Northern Rail uniform explained that the train was trapped by a points failure. We were ushered to a 156 in an adjacent platform which was commandeered to form the (by now severely delayed) 2338 service.

My fellow passengers were apparently not well-versed in the etiquette of overcrowded trains and wedged themselves into the vestibules rather than spreading out down the aisle, as would be sensible. Pleas by myself and a couple of other passengers, as well as the train guard over the PA, were largely ignored. They did finally move, when a loud and aggressive drunk tried to push his way on board and two yellow-jacketed BTP officers appeared to take control of the situation.

There was an actual cheer when the engine revved up and we pulled out of the station, over 45 minutes late. I was kicking myself for letting a London Midland train to Liverpool South Parkway go, but was happy to finally get to Mossley Hill at about half past midnight. I set off to walk home, aided by directions from my sister and a friendly stranger who also pointed me in the right direction.

The snow was lying a good two or three inches deep on the ground, but it wasn’t too cold. Walking along the narrow side roads, passing playing fields and parkland covered by pure snow, it was actually quite picturesque.

Unfortunately, it seems that I have a limited ability to follow a straight road, and wandered down a couple of cul-de-sacs before realising I had got lost. Another panicked phone call to home, and eventually I got my bearings.

I arrived home at about 1am, a magnificent two hours after I first started out on a journey that normally takes 10 minutes. Hurray for snow!

Even worse, I’ve now turned into one of those people giving voxpops on station platforms about the lack of information. The various disruptions were not Merseyrail or Northern Rail’s fault, but there was nothing on Merseyrail’s web site or Twitter feed about the severe disruption, and the information provision by staff at Lime Street was abysmal.

Despite the problems, I’m grateful to Northern Rail for finally getting me (closer to) home, and also to the various people in my family who listened patiently to my slightly frantic phone calls. 🙂

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