Off the Rails

By Barry Hill


Over the years I have, with disabled rail card in hand, enjoyed long distance travel across the length and breadth of this fair and pleasant land by train.  Well, I say enjoyed, but that’s not wholly accurate.


There is a very useful system whereby disabled people can book assistance at train stations to help getting off at the right stop, to help with swapping trains, and to help getting out of the train stations.  It’s a superb system… when it works.  When it doesn’t work, it’s like a safety net made from spaghetti.  It looks like it’s going to do the job, but I’m screwed when I find out that it hasn’t.


I remember one day when I’d booked assistance to get me off the train at Manchester.  The announcement on this particular train was too quiet – It was probably keeping the driver awake - so I was very much relying on the assistance to let me know when I’d got to Manchester.  When I heard a passenger mention that the next stop was Crewe (one or two stops after the one I wanted), I knew the system had failed.  Now, Crewe is a relatively busy interchange, but it was Sunday, and by the time I found some staff to help me I’d just missed the train going back to where I wanted to be.  Bugger.  The journey that would have taken me an hour or so took me nearly three hours, but that wasn’t the worst.


One lovely summer’s day several years ago, I had a nightmare journey.  It must have been quite a while ago, because it was a lovely summer’s day up there in the thirties.  It was so hot that the power lines above the railway lines had gone soft and drooped until they became a danger.  Our train had to stop outside Burnley.  Not in Burnley station, but tantalisingly close enough to be annoying to those passengers who could see how close it was.  I was alright.  It could have been in the middle of the wilderness for all I knew.  Now, you know the train is going to be stopped for quite a long time when the engines are turned off despite the reassuring announcement from the conductor.  And, when the engines are turned off, so is the air conditioning.  Did I tell you that it was up there in the thirties, and we were, essentially, sat in a greenhouse?  I think we were there about an hour, but it seemed like a lot longer when you’re being casseroled.


The train finally limped into Burnley station where we were told Thomas was too knackered to take us any further.  The next train with enough puff to get us to our destination would be arriving in 40 minutes.  A guard did help me off the train and sat me on a bench, faithfully assuring me that he’d come and get me when my train came in.  45 minutes later I accosted a member of public to find me a member of staff.  Said staff explained that my train had been and gone and that the member of staff who faithfully told me he’d be back to help me on my train had also been and gone, well, gone at least.  His shift was over and he’d gone home.  “The rascal” I thought, “The absolute cad.”  Well, if it was an Enid Blighton book, that’s what the translator would have put in place of what I was calling the absentee staff.


“Not to worry,” assured the new member of staff, “Your next train will be along in half an hour.”


Would you believe it, half an hour later, a train turned up but no member of staff did?  Luckily, there was the kind member of the public to hand when the train I suspected was mine was in.  Sometimes, these kind members of the public turn up just when I need them, like the shopkeeper in Mr Ben.


So, despite the efforts of British Rail staff at Burnley station, I got to my destination several hours later than expected, and probably several pounds lighter from the sauna.


I wrote to BR about this incident, asking for a refund, and they sent me a voucher for money off my next train ticket… and it had an expirey date.  You’ve got to admire their gall.


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