My train from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth is a bus. Again. It's not leaves on the line, or sheep. It's fans, allegedly. The story goes that Arriva Trains Wales have upgraded the cooling fans on their Cambrian Line trains with fans that really suck. In hot weather, the poor little engines struggling up the hills start to pant, and in want of wafting, they soon reduce to a crawl. They broke their own trains. Ludicrous. Every week. I'm Aberpystoffwyth it.
One Track Mind
The line from Aberystwyth to Birmingham is a single track line until Shrewsbury, with a paucity of passing places. If you're up near the driver's cab, you can hear him gargling down the phone at the start and end of each single track section, part of the ritual known as ‘phlegming up the token’. If the train coming the other way is late arriving at the passing place, you just sit there until it turns up and expectorates. Pretty soon you're just as late as it is... Nope, you're still not as late as it is... At last, you're sodding late! Gargle gargle.
When is a late train not a late train? When it's an on time train which starts somewhere else. By the same principle that makes a stopped clock right twice a day, if a train stays still long enough, it will eventually become on time. Your train has crawled up hills, waited at passing places and got stuck behind a service which also stops at Oakengates, Shifnal, Cosford, Albrighton, Codsall and Bilbrook. What they're going to do is kick everyone off at Wolverhampton and turn around, becoming an on time service in the other direction.
Except that it isn't your train. Not yet. You're somewhere under Birmingham wondering what the hell is going on. If they'd only told you in time, you'd have caught any of the many frequent and overstuffed services that could have got you to Wolverhampton. The automated voice has to be extremely sorry that the something seventeen arrival from Aberystwyth has been cancelled, before they'll even think of telling you to throw yourself to Wolves. If you prick them, do they not bleed? Years after Alan Turing arsenicked off to a better place, the discipline of Artificial Sincerity which he founded is clearly still in its infancy.
The Tamworth Test
On my way from Nottingham to Aberystwyth, I generally use the little bit of signal I get in the Tamworth area to check the Shrewsbury live arrivals board. The estimated delay on the train from Aber gives me a reasonable indicator of how likely I am to get Wolverhamptoned. If it looks bad (what do I mean if?) then I don't even think of popping out through New Street Revenue Protection for another bottle of water and a packet of ginger biscuits, I just sprint across the concourse, leaping over small children, just in time to see the back end of the stopping train to Shrewsbury. So I sprint to some fast Virgin train bound for Manky Picc or Embra (via the Lakes) which gets me to Wolverhampton so quickly that I get so see the back end of the Shrewsbury stopper again!
Train? What Train?
When Stalin got hold of the Kremlin keys, he had Trotsky carefully painted out of the celebrated picture showing the Party greeting Lenin stepping down from the train on the occasion of his return from exile in Germany. If it had been Arriva rather than Stalin, they'd have painted out the train.
So it's something forty, I'm in Wolverhampton and the Aberystwyth train is listed as on time for something fifty. Only now it isn't. It's not marked cancelled. It's just not there at all. You imagined it. The announcer, who sounds uncannily like the late great David Rappaport, says nothing. Grumpy people are asking the platform staff what's going on, but the staff work for Virgin so nobody's told them anything. Eventually Rappaport-man tells us to get the stopper to Shrewsbury. That's the one an hour after the one I nearly caught in Brum. A fellow punter's on the phone to his wife. It turns out that today's been especially hot, and the train's been Wolverhamptoned at Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury ran out of complaint forms in time for elevenses. That's why it's nearly tomorrow and I'm ranting into my trousers on a bus stuck at temporary traffic lights just outside Borth. It could be worse. It could be a level frigging crossing.
It's Not All Bad
This is such a relentlessly regular occurrence that there's a kind of Community of the Shafted. You say hello to someone you got stranded with last week, and before long you've got someone to laugh with, as well as clearly defined bunch of ludicrous fools to laugh at. It's a good way of breaking the ice, and if you had some actual ice, it would be good to break it, because some other people could probably do with a bit.
Meanwhile, the on-train staff (if you're lucky enough to be on the train) have to put up with this all day every day. They're already at the nervous laughter stage. When you ask them ‘when will...?’, they have that little chuckle that reassures you that you're not turning into an insect on the Kafka train, and they're straight enough to tell you that they couldn't honestly pretend to have a clue, given how disastrous things have been all day. If you're Mr Arriva and you're thinking of firing these people for not being straight-faced automata lying through their teeth on behalf of your shareholders, fire yourself instead.