First Capital Connect – still running round in circles.

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Hardly surprising the engine’s overrunning. It doesn’t know if it’s coming or going…

The Great Northern Route: not so great.

This week got off to a bad start. Monday night at King’s Cross was like the Slug and Lettuce on a Friday night. It was Lethal Bizzle. The Departures board made depressing viewing. Delayed, Cancelled and no platforms marked at all. No trains.

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The problem was with 14 ‘droppers’ on the line between Hitchin and Stevenage. What’s a dropper? The same question occurred to me. A dropper is the non-electrified wire that supports the electrified lines above the tracks and trains. I think.

Vandalism or scrap metal theft, surely. In which case, there’s little Network Rail can do except replace/fix them. Am I too quick to forgive?

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I was earwigging a member of staff trying to sound as cheerful as possible while telling a commuter “You’re looking at 2 hours.”

I was checking maps on my phone to see how close to home a train from St Pancras would get me. Not great. Harpenden or Luton were the choices. A 40-minute drive for my wife to come and fetch me. Then another 40 minutes back…

But as if by magic the station announcer told us the next train calling at Stevenage would soon be leaving from Platform 0. There was no stampede but there was certainly urgency in the way people made their way to the train.

These situations can be a false dawn; you can’t let your guard down. A place on a train is no guarantee of being sped home with effortless efficiency. When you’re dealing with overhead wires (and we were) you can be crawling along at best or stationary at worst – actually, going backwards would be worse but that’s never happened to me.
But as luck would have it, I was home as fast as I could have wished. So that was the worst over, right?

You know when you get phone calls early in the morning, it’s never good news. All kinds if thoughts rush through your head. Anyway, it was my neighbour to say that if I was considering Parking In Stevenage today, don’t bother.
Apparently the platforms were packed and there was talk of the dreaded Replacement Bus Service. All the way to London. Serious.

My neighbour was right; I didn’t bother.

This post was brought to you by two well-executed semi-colons. I advise you to use them more in 2013. They are unloved and underrated.

Why is Stevenage traffic suddenly all clogged up?

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What is it all of a sudden with traffic in Stevenage? All backed up on the roundabout leading up to the Tesco Extra leading into Lytton Way, trailing back as far back as Fairlands Valley Park. I don’t understand.

Are there roadworks blocking other routes then? I don’t know. All I do know that I have to set off five minutes early to make sure I get the same train.

I mean, is this just temporary or is it permanent from now on?

Traffic’s always heaviest in the middle of the week, but even on Mondays it’s choggy.

I can’t get to Swingate any other route – that’s the nature of Lytton Way’s 5/6 lane dual carriageway. Unless I come at the big roundabout from Old Stevenage direction but then that’ll set me back routing from there anyway.

First World problems, eh…

Fatality Friday.

I’ll have the militant passenger groups up in arms when I say this, but by and large, the trains  are pretty reliable.

Last week was a bad one, but even though it impacts on my life and affects whether I get to see my kids before bedtime, I can still sympathise.

Monday was a little tenuous. It was too hot – the wrong kind of heat, or perhaps a ‘temperature-related incident’ to use the public announcement vernacular.

Tuesday was unfortunate. Lighting struck overhead lines and caused havoc on trains in and out of King’s Cross.

I witnessed an interesting exchange between 2 commuters. One had obviously had a shit day, the other, not quite so bad. The former insisted that this sort of delay occurred every day, quoting his annual rail card cost for us all to compare with our own.

The other guy insisted that this was the first delay he’d encountered this year. Both were astounded by their counterpart’s argument – though it didn’t escalate from incredulity to abuse or fisticuffs.

The truth lay somewhere in between but neither was in the mood to concede any ground.

Wednesday and Thursday: no problems to report.

So, Friday. When you arrive at King’s Cross you expect to see a scrum on the concourse, but you have a benchmark size in your head and the size of Friday’s scrum was a sure sign that something was awry.

So I sat on a train for nearly an hour without going anywhere. Only after 45 minutes was there any information as to why we weren’t moving – a person struck by a train.

In that moment we’re all wrapped up in our own issues: I’m going to be late. And if you give it any thought at all, the optimist in us all hopes for the best. They didn’t say ‘fatality’ but if you think about it for any length of time, not many people get hit by a train and live to tell the tale.

Alexandra Palace.

So with a combination of crawling and stopping completely, we made it as far as Alexandra Palace. And there it was next to the 20 or so police in hi-vis vests on the platform, the body bag. Occupied.

I looked around the carriage to see if anyone else had noticed. Some were reading the paper, others were following Andy Murray’s semi-final defeat to Nadal. Nobody, it seemed, had the look of someone who’d just seen a corpse in a zip-loc bag.

I saw a dead cat by the side of the road this morning. I hope these things don’t come in threes.

London. Hanging by a thread.

Most of the time things just work. We don’t question them. We take them for granted. We don’t see them. It’s the way things are.

It’s only when things go wrong that we question them. They become noticeable by their absence.

Overhead lines. You never hear announcements about them working perfectly, but to be fair, the majority of the time they’re quietly getting on with the job in the background. Overhead.

But the other evening, they jumped from obscurity to centre-stage when they stopped working. It meant that trains couldn’t safely reach King’s Cross. For a long, long time that evening it was a station with thousands of stranded commuters and no trains. Not one.

Departures board at King's Cross

Ignore the 'on time' trains. They weren't.

It’s at times like this that you come to realise that it really doesn’t take much to bring these systems to standstill. One simple random glitch can affect thousands of families, ruin plans, cause chaos, cost time and money. More to the point, this father won’t get to say ‘night night’ to his little girl this evening.

With no trains out of town, your options are severely limited. A guy next to me got his mate’s taxi firm on the phone. No joy. Coaches? Where do they go from? Wouldn’t they be rammed too? A city perhaps running beyond full capacity, London really is hanging by a thread, a fragile set of connections at the mercy of anyone with serious intentions of creating havoc.

Blimey.

The man at the front.

Rather than some faceless corporation taking your money to further their evil plans, it’s nice to be reminded that they employ real people, much like you and I.

Possibly not today's driver.

The usual service announcements at the station are pre-recorded copy and paste messages that have a neutral sounding voice over chap expressing how sorry he is at the 17-minute delay. These will have been recorded in a sound studio somewhere in Soho back in 2002. So it’s obvious to all that:

1. He’s not sorry.
2. He’s not there.
3. He’s not employed by the rail company.

So it’s always refreshing to hear someone real say something real.

Due to over-running engineering works (possibly not helped by the snow) there were a few trains missing this morning.

As luck would have it, an empty one pulled up unannounced and we all piled in. As there hadn’t been a train for a very long time, it was standing room only.

Bless him, the driver’s noticed this and announces over the Tannoy that if anyone fancies a seat in First Class, help yourself. For good measure he adds, “And if you get any trouble from the ticket inspectors, just refer them to me, the man at the front.”

Chuckles all round and slightly warmer feelings towards the nasty corporation that reluctantly pays the wages of the ‘man at the front’.

Snowy tracks at Welwyn Garden City this morning.

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