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Tuesday, 29 October, 2002, 15:03 GMT
My train journey hell
GNER train at King's Cross station in London
Mission accomplished: London's King's Cross station
BBC News Online's Adrian Dalingwater was caught up in the travel chaos caused by Sunday's storm. This is his account of a train journey from Newcastle to London.

If the laws governing the transportation of cattle applied to humans, things might have been better.

Five hours spent standing in a crowded doorway on a Newcastle to London train is not my idea of a fun way to spend a large chunk of Monday.

A straw poll of my fellow passengers/sufferers revealed that it wasn't theirs, either.

We can only apologise to passengers, but the effects of this storm were unforeseeable; we have run as many trains as possible and brought in extra staff to help with the situation

GNER spokesman

Throw in some of the most overused and evil-smelling toilet facilities imaginable, and the picture of misery is complete.

And things had all been going so well.

A pleasant weekend in Newcastle taking in the delights of football at St James's Park and the bars of the city's quayside was followed what can only be described as the return trip from hell.

No trains - or alternative bus services - on Sunday, the day I was due to return, as a result of the storm blocking railway lines and roads. There was no alternative but to spend an unscheduled night at a friend's house.

Standing room only

Monday dawned brightly, and a quick call to Great North Eastern Railways revealed that its trains to London were running but "subject to delays and cancellations".

I headed for Newcastle station, planning to take the 1100 train and avoid the commuter rush. But by the time this train arrived, at 1145, there were large crowds on the platform.

The train - which had come from Edinburgh - was already packed, with people standing in the aisles.

My hopes of obtaining a seat evaporated. I had been told that coach C was a seat reservation-free zone, to help those - like me - who had been allocated reserved seats on the trains that failed to run the previous day. There was no coach C - A, B, D and F to M, but no C.

And then something wonderful happened: relatively orderly queues formed at carriage doors; the elderly and those with children were allowed to get on first, with no shortage of volunteers to help with heavy cases; people smiled ruefully and made jokes about the situation.

Crammed into the doorway of the train, the people around me talked cheerfully about jobs, holidays, the weather, the cost of living - and apologetically said "We're full" to would-be passengers who attempted to board the train at each subsequent stop.

I have nothing but admiration for my fellow passengers, in particular the young teacher who got on at Edinburgh, found a seat, and then gave it up to a man who got on at Berwick with a walking stick. She then stood the rest of the way to London.


Admiration is not what I feel when considering the performance of Great North Eastern Railways, however.

They appeared woefully unprepared for a storm that was forecast several days in advance.

The adverse weather conditions that blew trees onto the line were not the train company's fault, nor is the crumbling infrastructure of the railway network that succumbed so easily to them.

Some cancellations and delays were inevitable, and railway staff on the stations and the train itself did their best to help people and keep them informed.

But I am left with a number of questions:

  • Why were extra trains or alternative bus services not provided to ease the most severe overcrowding I have ever experienced on railways in the UK?

  • Why were there so few staff to help deal with a situation that could have resulted in a Darwinian dash for seats, with the weakest trampled underfoot?

  • And why was there confusion about seat reservations, with some services abandoning all hope of enforcing the system and others sticking rigidly to it?

I spent five hours on my feet on the train which arrived in London shortly after 1630, two-and-a-half hours behind schedule as a result of speed restrictions imposed on safety grounds.

I am a reasonably healthy man in my early 30s, but found the experience very uncomfortable. Others on that train were far worse off, as were those who spent even longer on Britain's badly delayed, overcrowded trains that day.

My return ticket for this journey cost the not inexpensive sum of 80, even though I booked it several weeks in advance.

Next time I'll fly.

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29 Oct 02 | Europe
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