Playing trains and trying to catch up on lost sleep
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.