Chaos ‘just like the war’ spirit

The station at Peterborough was chaotic. METP-07-02-14AS008
The station at Peterborough was chaotic. METP-07-02-14AS008
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TRISH TAKES FIVE: By TRish Burgess

I took a break from my column over the last two weeks to try and relax with the family during the festive period.

A great idea but, in truth, I am more frazzled now than I was beforehand, thanks to a puncture on the A16, frequent visits to visit a poorly relative in Peterborough Hospital and, to top it all, the post-Christmas chaos on the rail network.

I had booked my mum’s return journey from Newcastle to Peterborough before I knew about ‘planned engineering works’ between London King’s Cross and Finsbury Park. But I should have guessed there might be problems as maintenance always happens at holiday times.

Those in authority say it’s when the network is at its least busy, as their regular business travellers are tucked up safely at home enjoying re-runs of the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Specials. These savvy rail users, however, are replaced by a combination of families and many elderly passengers who aren’t as clued up as regular customers and are carrying considerably more luggage.

As I waited for my mum on the platform at Peterborough station on Tuesday, December 23, two members of staff were waiting with me to assist other travellers alighting from the train.

They told me their help would be needed for 250 passengers on that day alone. Extrapolating that figure across the whole network, I had some idea of the numbers of vulnerable people travelling over the Christmas period to spend time with their loved ones.

My 80-year-old mother had thoroughly enjoyed her journey south: I had booked her a seat in a First Class carriage so she would be less stressed. She told me the free gin and tonic had done wonders for her anxiety. No wonder she needed a hand down onto the platform.

Alas, it wasn’t going to be quite as smooth for the return journey. I spent Boxing Day evening trying to suss out what we were going to do the following day.

Websites and Twitter feeds informed me that there would be no trains from King’s Cross and that they were working on a revised timetable. I was plugged into every social media source possible and was still none the wiser. So much for the Information Age. And it had started snowing...

Saturday, December 27. Information was still muddled but, from what we could gather, a number of trains would be running from Finsbury Park to Peterborough, so we reckoned her 12.16 train might be ok. In the meantime, our son was travelling early in the other direction from Peterborough to London.

Hubby drove him to the station for 9am to catch a train to Finsbury Park and then onto Moorgate. Thankfully, he reached his destination minutes before they closed Finsbury Park due to overcrowding.

Dashing back home, Dougie the taxi driver collected mum and me and drove again to Peterborough, this time accompanied by the hordes of sale shoppers who were clogging up the roads.

The station was chaotic. Passengers were crowded onto platforms and, as expected, a large number of bewildered people, cold and carrying large cases, were needing assistance. My mum’s train looked to be on time and then, seconds later, it was delayed. Staff were doing their best under unprecedented conditions.

I was told the train was still stuck in London and it would be wise to get my mother onto the next train to Edinburgh arriving in the next few minutes. It was a free­for­all and my mum no longer had a reserved seat.

She was frightened. I bundled her onto the train, asking a couple of younger women to look after her. She reminded me of Paddington, standing in the aisle looking forlorn, in her woollen hooded coat.

All she needed was a label round her neck saying, “Please look after this granny”.

As I watched helpless from the platform, I began to witness the great British public doing what they do best: helping each other at a time of crisis. A man in his 30s gave up his seat for my mother who, in turn, encouraged another woman to perch on the arm of her seat. I could see smiles on faces, even laughter.

Someone was passing round popcorn. She was going to be all right.

Mum rang me when she reached home. “I’ve had a marvellous journey. It was just like being in the war.”

*You can follow Trish on Twitter @mumsgoneto and read her blog at www.mumsgoneto.blogspot.com