These days I’m doing the short miles. A 3 mile round trip to the station 3 times a week to get the train to go to work. Most weeks a 6 mile round trip into the centre of town. Urban, utilitarian, purposeful miles. Even then, they lift my mood. Even these short distances that hardly register a heart beat or trouble my lungs, are good for me. I know I need to be clocking up the miles, climbing the hills and enjoying the descents in the countryside that sits on my doorstep. I’ve stopped telling myself that I should. ‘Should’ doesn’t help. ‘Should’ sits on my shoulders and harms my posture. ‘Should’ wags its finger at me and reminds me of my failings.
These days, however the short downhill trip to the station on my way to work is full of dread. It’s not my job I dread, but the certainty that my journey home will be a trial.
For those of you blessed not to live in, and rely on trains to get you about, in the south east of England a little background is necessary. Since around the middle of April the trains in the south east have been – how can I put this? – erratic. Cancellations, delays and many more broken down trains than usual. Announcements of fires in signal boxes scarcely raise an eyebrow. And, yes, delays caused by ‘a body on the line.’ Replacement bus services’ are propping up my homeward – bound journeys.
This chaos is mainly caused by what the station announcements describe as ‘staff sickness.’ This is code for unofficial strike action. This week, at least, they made it official and there is a 5 day strike. I’m working from home. Here is not the place to delve into the staff grievances, the poor performance of the train company and the passenger protests at stations in London and Brighton, however.
What I am writing about here started on 17 October 2000 just outside Hatfield, a town north of London. A train came off the tracks resulting in the death of 4 passengers and injuries to a further 70.
The Hatfield disaster.
I wasn’t there, I have never been there. Never travelled through there, and, most probably, I never will. I didn’t know anyone on the train, either. But the events of that day echo still for me. Back then I was commuting to London by train. No bike ride to the station (it was a 5 minute walk.) But there was an underground train and a bus ride after that to get me to the mental health service I was running back then. The impact that the Hatfield disaster had on me was a significant factor in the onset of my mental health problems that were first recognised by me and my doctors the following March.
The reason for the derailment at Hatfield was that there were cracks in the rails. Train companies could not simply stop running services while the entire network was checked. But what they could do is have the rains running at half the speed they would do normally. So my ride to London was reduced to a 30mph speed limit, doubling the length of an already long trip – there and back. Trains were cancelled, station concourses teemed with despairing passengers in varying states of despair and resignation. I can clearly recall being unable to even get into the station for the crowds of people waiting more in hope than expectation that a train would arrive to (eventually) take them to where they needed to be. Finding a seat on a train was no guarantee either. I can still recall like it was last week finally sitting on a train that would take me home after somehow having done a day’s work only to hear an announcement to say that that train would not be going anywhere and that the train 3 platforms away would be leaving for home right then. I remember running to get there only to join crowds 3 deep waiting for a train, any train, to appear. And then there was another announcement about another train on another platform … and the crowd surged again. I can’t recall what happened next, but you get the picture. This situation continued for weeks, months as the tracks were checked and repairs made.
There have not been any derailments, no passengers killed or injured. But the same uncertainty and unpredictability is there, coming back in waves every working day. And all this and I only have to travel 3 days per week. And it’s not a busy commuter line on the scale of those journeys to London that I used to make 5 days per week.
Yes, I remember the place –
The station. One dull afternoon
The train drew up there
Before the town was reached
From the windows I saw
The usual picture-postcard scenery.
The sheep – cropped fields revealed
Not a hint of catastrophe.
A few passengers looked up,
And jolted from a Sunday doze
They saw the place name and froze.
Opposite me a woman wept.
Some people came aboard,
And passed on the baton of heir grief
To those who left. The place’s name
Was not observed by all.
Noses stuck in books some read on
As car parks, new housing. dull fields,
Were quickly passed then gone.
Brian Patten (1946 – )
Here is a link to the historical background to the poem: