The perfectly awful storm, or: Virtually no planes, trains or automobiles


This part of the journey was smooth, at least, though that’s possibly my mother gripping the dashboard in anguish as I force her to listen to Gwar yet again

Long-time readers may remember the trouble I had getting down to Worthing last Christmas to see my folks; well, at least this year there was slightly more justification for my nightmarish journey.  Instead of a single three-day signal failure in Preston Park, there was a two-day storm that laid waste to much of Great Britain and Ireland, and reduced us all to the level of animals… or so it seemed to one who was caught in the middle of the ensuing chaos.  Are you sitting comfortably?  Because I certainly wasn’t…

Nobly, I’d agreed previously to work both yesterday (Monday) and this morning; I witnessed problems with public transport yesterday, but faced none of it myself, the only problem I so much as passed through being a power cut at Highgate station, which didn’t stop me getting home to FInchley.  We didn’t have a flood, the power didn’t go out, and I wasn’t even kept awake by the wind, so I thought it’d all be fine, and that although there’d be problems on Tuesday morning, it’d be no worse than last year.  So imagine my dismay when I saw this morning that Southern Railways had suspended essentially their entire service! This was the day before they’d shut everything down completely on Christmas Day, and thus it couldn’t have come at a worse time, because I risked being stuck in London over the holiday period.

I went to work, for all the good that did (apart from effectively being the senior person on my side of the office, I had to fill my time scanning things that might not have even needed scanning, but which needed to be done individually anyway), and left after eating lunch around midday, wondering how I’d get home.  The Victoria-to-Brighton line hadn’t improved; indeed, after briefly being open as far south as Gatwick Airport, it had closed again due to a “cable fire” at East Croydon “until further notice” (a particularly melodramatic tweet suggested this would be “for the foreseeable future”).  And even if that part reopened, the rest of the line was only open from Brighton as far north as Haywards Heath, leaving a significant gap that they didn’t seem apt to fill with rail replacement buses.

Thus I went with plan B: go to Waterloo, get a train to somewhere in Surrey, and have my mother pick me up in the car.  She nominated Dorking, and off I went to give South-West Trains a try.  Having experienced their ineptness first-hand at university, I can only say it’s a sad, sad day when they seem to be the only people who can get you anywhere!

At Waterloo, however, the train situation was dire: “Cancelled” above almost every train on the board, especially the next one to Dorking, although the place wasn’t crowded.  I saw one that was going to Woking, a place in which my mother and I lived during 1999 as she looked after her friend’s house and I worked to make money before returning to university (following my Michigan odyssey), and Mumsy agreed to try and pick me up from there.  I scanned my Oyster card rather than pay for a ticket, and this was apparently fine as they weren’t charging people at this stage, as this would have probably caused a riot…

The train felt like the last chopper out of Saigon: so many people squashing in, and the veneer of civilisation peeling away as people desperate for a place to stand (yes, stand, all the seats were gone by this point) began arguing.  This included one of those obnoxiously smug middle-class types with a beard and tattoos (a bit like that idiot who does that chat show on BBC3 with his dad), whose attitude to an old man who couldn’t let him through (because they’d jammed into the same gap) was to get all sarcastic and snotty with him, as though it wasn’t his own fault!  I was in the same train carriage, or rather, the “lobby” at one end, where I’d finally given up trying to walk through the train itself and had resigned myself to sitting cross-legged on the floor, reading Private Eye and basically not antagonising anyone.  At least some of the ten or so people in this confined space with me had bags they could sit on, but most just stood…

Woking was supposed to be the first stop, but in fact we stopped at Clapham Junction (a hell of a place at the best of times, it has signs proclaiming it to be “Britains (sic.) busiest railway station”), apparently with the naive aim of taking on more passengers.  This was where things came very close to anarchy, as there was no way we could fit anyone else aboard, but the driver announced that the passengers on the platform weren’t letting the train leave until they could get on!  I imagine only the fact that my part of the train wasn’t “at” the platform prevented me from feeling like I’d entered a George A. Romero zombie movie.

(Mind you, any busy night on the Tube is like that: why don’t people realise that you have to get OFF the train before there’s room for them to get ON!)

Oh, and did I mention, I was right next to a toilet — as soon as the train started moving, something must have been stirred up in the waste tanks because I got a sickly smell of urine.  At least, I hope it came from the toilet…

Finally we got to Woking, but oh no: the doors didn’t open!  For one horrible, panicky moment I wanted to pull the emergency cord, as the next stop would be Basingstoke, a place I don’t believe actually exists outside of references in a Monty Python sketch, but fortunately the driver asked the train guard to unlock the doors, and I was able to escape.  Woking seemed a singularly appropriate place, as I felt like I’d been caught up in the mass exodus of The War of the Worlds, albeit in more or less the opposite direction.  Indeed, I saw a Martian Fighting Machine… down the end of the pedestrianised area from the pub where I sat and waited out of the cold.

It took my mother another hour or so to reach Woking (thanks to flooding on the road to Dorking), but once I found her in the car park on the opposite side of the station, we were able to return home before it got fully dark.  Admittedly, Android Navigation directed us down some creepy country roads before we got to the A24, but none of them were (completely) blocked by fallen trees or puddles, so perhaps it was helping us to avoid the worst of the travel chaos on the roads?

And so here I am, rested, bathed, fed, and about to hand out presents to my mother and grandmother.  I also brought home a record player, so I can listen to my late uncle’s vinyl, such as Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath, during my week-long exile here in Worthing.  I’m glad to be in the bosom (uh huh huh etc.) of my family again, but I can’t help but worry about how I’m going to get back to London in the New Year: it seems Southern are suspending part of the route (between Redhill and Purley) for the entire period, and that they’d planned to do this even before the travel chaos!

I should point out that a lot of people elsewhere in the country have things much, much worse than me: they’re still waiting for a train or a plane (Gatwick copped the worst of it, I think), sitting at home with the power off, or being evacuated due to rising floodwaters.  And yes, they had things much worse in the Philippines, New Orleans and Japan in recent years, but they had hurricanes and earthquakes — what excuse do we have, for what I can only describe as greater disruption than that caused by the Luftwaffe in the 1940s?  Has privatisation led to greater complacency and cost-cutting, and is this the inevitable result?  A perfect storm to undermine our entire civilisation?


10 thoughts on “The perfectly awful storm, or: Virtually no planes, trains or automobiles

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