Play­ing trains and try­ing to catch up on lost sleep

Western Morning News - - News -

I am sit­ting at New­ton Ab­bot train sta­tion. It’s 12.31am. A man’s voice comes over the pub­lic ad­dress sys­tem.

“We are sorry to an­nounce that the 12.36 sleeper ser­vice to Lon­don Padding­ton is de­layed by ap­prox­i­mately 111 min­utes. This is due to a train fault.”

Storm Diana has not shaken her fist at the West­coun­try as hard as we thought she might. The rail line at Dawlish that is reg­u­larly bat­tered is hang­ing on – for now.

But for the past six weeks, the weather has led to numer­ous can­cel­la­tions and de­lays re­sult­ing in dis­rup­tion and frus­tra­tion for thou­sands of pas­sen­gers.

On one oc­ca­sion last month, the line was shut for 24 hours after a sink hole opened up near Teign­mouth. It was closed again early in Novem­ber for a day when the Met Of­fice is­sued a yel­low weather warn­ing amidst high tides and strong winds. And as soon as there’s a hint over wavees over­top­ping the line, CrossCoun­try trains have been avoid­ing the Dawlish sec­tion al­to­gether, thanks to our pre­car­i­ous net­work.

It should have been prop­erly fixed when it col­lapsed into the sea dur­ing the storms of 2014. In­stead, they stuck a plas­ter on it un­til a more long-term so­lu­tion could be found. Sub­se­quent prom­ises of in­vest­ment have failed to ma­te­ri­alise and still we are left on the other side of a piece of track that is just not fit for pur­pose.

This time it is not the weather, or the track. In­stead, the train has a fault.

And I’m stranded with one other poor sap in the rain. There are no staff, no wait­ing room, no cup of cof­fee, just a bleak, dark, empty plat­form.

I would have trav­elled up on Thurs­day morn­ing if I could have made it to Lon­don for a 9am meet­ing. But why would any­one from the West­coun­try want to be in our cap­i­tal city for the start of the work­ing day?

I looked at ev­ery­thing. The flight from Ex­eter to Lon­don City Air­port ar­rives at 8.10am, which would have just got me into Ca­nary

Wharf by 9am with a fair wind, but I couldn’t get home un­less I left the of­fice by 4pm to fly back.

The first train to Lon­don Padding­ton from Totnes ar­rives at 8.37am. It takes an­other 45 min­utes to get across town. So I ruled that out too.

With no other op­tions, I pre­pared my­self to spend the night rat­tling around on a tiny bed like a lone sar­dine in a cosy tin on the charm­ing if rel­a­tively un­sleep­able sleeper.

I moved from Pen­zance to Totnes ear­lier this year think­ing get­ting to Lon­don would be a com­par­a­tive breeze. Three hours in­stead of five-and-a-half hours felt like a short hop.

Yet still it’s im­pos­si­ble to pull off a full day’s work un­less you’re pre­pared for some ex­treme lev­els of sleep de­pri­va­tion.

So I find my­self on the plat­form at New­ton Ab­bot, where a man has now pulled up in a 48-seater coach and ap­peared on the plat­form.

“Are you for the sleeper?” he asks the two of us.

“Yes,” I replied, speak­ing for my new friend who was strug­gling to un­der­stand in lim­ited English what was go­ing on.

“I’m tak­ing you,” he said. “To Ex­eter.”

“What hap­pens at Ex­eter?” I in­quired.

“No idea. I’ve just been told to pick you up and drop you there.”

The two of us were duly trans­ported in a huge coach, dropped at Ex­eter St Davids and ush­ered into the wait­ing room, where we were left hang­ing. The de­par­ture board sug­gested the sleeper was still on its way. But it hadn’t yet left Truro and was now run­ning two hours and 19 min­utes late.

Even­tu­ally, the sta­tion man­ager called over to us.

“Are you go­ing to Pad­dding­ton? Will you wait or do you want a taxi?”

The op­tions weren’t great. Wait for two hours at Ex­eter, get a couple of hours’ sleep in the cabin I’d booked or jump in a taxi and get de­posited in the mid­dle of the night at Padding­ton with no sleep and nowhere to stay.

We opted to wait. A very kind re­cep­tion­ist at the Premier Inn across the road gave me a free cof­fee and let me wait in their bar for an hour.

At 3.35am the sleeper train fi­nally pulled up. There was a small gag­gle of us half-asleep, grumpy pas­sen­gers try­ing des­perately to muster the spirit of the Blitz. As I was ush­ered into my bi­joux bunk, I was told the train wasn’t go­ing to Padding­ton any more. In­stead they were turf­ing us off at Read­ing and we would need to catch a new train to Lon­don.

I asked if they’d keep the train at Read­ing for a bit so we could at least catch an ex­tra hour in bed but the an­swer was a firm no. We’d be wo­ken at least 15 min­utes before the train ar­rived and leave the train im­me­di­ately.

So, with about one hour’s sleep, I stum­bled off the train at Read­ing, caught the next ser­vice to Padding­ton and – in fair­ness to GWR – made it in time for my 9am meet­ing.

I hope by the time you read this column, I’ll have ac­tu­ally made it back from Lon­don too. But I’ll still be curs­ing this na­tional dis­grace that has left the West­coun­try with a crum­bling train sys­tem while bil­lions is in­vested in other parts of the coun­try. And yawn­ing.

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