Tuesday, 14 June 2011


‘Let the train take the strain’ indeed. What hapless copywriter came up with that slogan? They evidently haven’t ventured on one of National Rail’s trains in recent times, that’s for sure. To be honest I had to Google British Rail to find out what our railways are called these days as no-one I spoke to had any idea.
A simple day out with the kids should have been just that. The sun was shining and, with the teenagers professing an unnatural desire to study for their exams, I felt it was the perfect opportunity to take advantage of my rail card and take the younger girls for a trip to the sea-side by train. No parking, no worries. I arrived home though a few hours later and took to my bed with a cold compress to get over the strain of taking the train and not, as is advertised, the other way around.
We were in plenty of time at St German’s station and met up with Mags, her children, her parents, their foster children and a very elderly grandfather. When the train pulled into the station, ten minutes late, our mouths dropped open. It was the type of train where one would expect to see Michael Palin, in a panama and furrowed brow, leaning out of the window. It was only two carriages long and its destination was Penzance. Penzance? All that way on a train that seemed to have been derailed from Calcutta? We were herded in, squeezing and apologising as we pushed past people who had been standing from Plymouth and, given the number of passengers on board, it looked as though they would still be there as the train pulled into St Erth. It was diabolical.
Of course, the corralling of us onto the train delayed us, especially when Mag’s grandfather got stuck in the door. The train driver did offer him a taxi to our destination, but to be honest St German’s is hardly Manhattan and I think that it would be fair to say that taxis are rather thin on the ground in a Cornish village. The poor chap looked a little distressed and desperate to stay with his family who were by now, squished down the other end of the carriage with no chance of getting out. So, having been shoe-horned in, the train eventually and with a little laboured ‘chuff’, pulled out of the station. We arrived at Liskeard not much later and decamped to the branch line that would take us to Looe. Between us and the other passengers we were laden with rucksacks, buckets and spades, several children, the odd double buggy and a few, very tiny babies. The atmosphere was mutinous with the realisation that we’d missed the bloody connection to Looe and there was nothing for it other than to sit it out for 50 minutes until another train came to collect us all. We had such a short turn around time that the foster children especially were very disappointed, not only had they never been to the sea-side before, they’d never been on a train; so much for this being the highlight of their half term holiday.
I felt so sorry for them and decided there was nothing for it other than to make a complaint at the station. Evidently it was not the employees of National Rail Liskeard who were to blame, but really, you think that there would be some sort of communication between a branch line and a national network line, especially when one of the employees said to me “It’s like this every half term. We know it’s going to be, I have no idea why they don’t put on a bigger train from Plymouth”.
I was not the only one with a grievance, another woman on the platform making her point both vociferously and emphatically succeeded in persuading the customer services chap to call his supervisor; some big-wig in charge of this area of Cornwall apparently. He, unfortunately, couldn’t speak to us as he was ‘just about to go to a conference’. One has to feel sorry for the employees in these situations, Mr BigWig was able to hide behind a telephone call, yet those working for him were on the front line, having to deal daily with disgruntled customers such as me. No-one could help us and by the time I’d re-joined the party, Mags’s grandpa was puce, had a square of kitchen towel on his head and was sitting in a large flower pot, looking very glum. There was no shade, no refreshments and it goes without saying- there were no spare benches. Mad dogs and Englishmen are not the only ones who go out into the midday sun, so do stranded rail passengers.
By the time the next train arrived and had delivered us to Looe, we had time to unwind our crab lines and shove a sausage roll down. There was hysterics when, on the run back to the train, less than an hour later, the little foster boy’s ice-cream fell out of his cone. We had no time to cajole him or buy him another as the train was already in the station. We’d abandoned Grandpa there. It was all too hot and too much for him. All in all, it was an unmitigated disaster brought about by the incompetency of National Rail. It could have taken me twenty minutes to drive there and with no limitations on when we had to get connections home again. As it transpired it took three hours of journey time for less than an hour of quality sea-side time.
I would not recommend it to the most earnest of rail enthusiasts. The silver lining? Because all four trains were so crowded, the conductor couldn’t get to us and so at least the whole, nightmare journey was free.

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