Thursday, 13 September 2012

Traveller's Tales: Train People

From time to time I am sent on an arduous work mission away from my native London, and last Friday was just such an event. I was off to Halifax in Yorkshire, a hellish journey to manage as a round trip in one day. I live in the wrong bit of London to easily reach Kings Cross Station, but had a 06:30 train to catch from there nonetheless. Up early, the ordeal proceeds as follows:

  • Overground to South London terminus.
  • On the Tube for the Northern Line to Kings Cross.
  • Train from Kings Cross to Leeds
  • Change at Leeds for train to Halifax.
  • Short taxi ride from Halifax station to the target destination.

The whole thing takes around four and a half hours, and if you add in the equivalent return journey starting at around 16:00, it results in abject exhaustion coupled with very little time in Halifax itself. Don't let anyone ever tell you business travel is glamorous. It would be easier to fly to New York for a long weekend.

Having made it back from Halifax to Leeds for the return journey by about 17:15, I was delighted to discover there was train disruption on the East Coast Main Line to London. Seat reservations had fallen entirely by the wayside as the result of a previous Leeds - London cancellation, resulting in an undignified jockeying for position. I played this circumstance to my advantage, the dog-eat-dog methodology of my London commuter training kicked in, and I deftly located myself at a comfy looking window seat with a table.

Circumstance being what it is, I was joined at my table on this busy train by an eclectic mix of people. First up was a smart-suited businessman. Unlike my cheap and cheerful off the peg trouser-and-jacket affair, this had the look of a proper made-to-measure number, well cut and sharp. Gold cuff links glinted at me, and he had an expensive looking leather bag which concealed his laptop. He asked me politely if it was OK to sit, (it was), and immediately ensnared me in some humorous conversation about the perils of distance travel and train disruption. It took seconds for me to feel slightly ashamed that I had expected a pompous twit to be joining me. In fact, this chap was witty and likeable, revealing the utter folly of judging a book by its cover.

Next to arrive was a serious but friendly Muslim gentlemen. He also politely requested if he could sit next to me, since he was concerned he would feel unwell if he were not facing the direction of travel. Suity Man I were at that moment doing battle with the power cable to his laptop, and I didn't immediately hear this soft spoken and gentle voice making its request. It fell to my generous spirited business friend to up sticks and decamp to the other side of the table, diagonally opposite me, the whole time making sure he kept up his charismatic repartee, constantly checking that everyone was OK and comfortable while I sat there with his power cable dangling from my left hand. By now, I was feeling secondary and tertiary waves of shame that I'd personally done nothing to help our new travel sick friend and had also left my own laptop firmly in the luggage rack, ignoring a large pile of emails in favour of a snooze.

As we began to settle once again, the remaining gap at our table was filled by an attractive thirty something lady with what appeared to be a baby bump. To accommodate her, Suity Man jumped up dashingly yet again, while she fitted herself carefully into the window seat. Then the equipment emerged from a bottomless rucksack; a laptop, a mobile phone, another mobile phone, a large ring-binder, and what appeared to be a portable electric fridge which we later learnt carried two bottles of fresh mummy milk destined for her brand new infant (waiting at home with daddy). This influx of kit caused further power issues, with much untangling of cables, juggling of plugs in sockets, and required yet more of Suity Man's good-humoured and unrelenting courtesy. Soon we were all experiencing strong waves of brotherly protectiveness as we learnt her story. She'd had to return to work less than a month after the birth of her child. It didn't seem right somehow.

The train began to move, and we were dismayed to discover our packed carriage had malfunctioning air conditioning. New Mum commented cheerily that the train staff must enjoy the "just out of the shower" look as she perspired as gracefully as possible, Suity Man smiled winningly, and Forward Facing Man stroked his long beard wistfully. I offered up some cola flavoured Colin Caterpillars from Marks and Spencer (I know it's mad, but I'm obsessed by these), and while they were politely declined by Forward Facing Man on the basis of religious beliefs, New Mum tucked in like she'd never eaten before, at one point sitting with Colin's head jauntily poking from her mouth while she considered whether it would be better to call or email a troublesome client. Suity Man suggested a call, because you can't beat the personal touch. Then he assertively removed the tail from a fellow Colin with a single bite.

After a sweaty eternity, we reached London Kings Cross station. By this point, we knew that Forward Facing Man had been accompanying his oldest son to Boarding School, and had missed his outbound train earlier in the day causing him to have to pay an additional seventy pounds in fares. We knew that New Mum was inclined to get teary about being away from her new-born child for so long. And we knew that Suity Man was going to drink a really good bottle of Chianti with his wife when he got home (I secretly feared for my liver and its possible future consumption with some fava beans).

And then, everyone went on their separate ways. I was glad to have met these three interesting individuals, all friendly and with a tale to tell. Apart from livening what would have been a dull and uncomfortable journey at the end of a long and tiring day, it caused me to reflect a little that there are many people in the world with buzzing existences, starring roles in the epic stories of their own lives. Just looking at people is not enough; happily today I encountered humans with places to go and things to do. It's also a near certainty that none of us will ever cross paths again. But life goes on. I wonder who I will come across next time?

** This blog post was first published at **


  1. The people you meet on long distance commutes is always fascinating.

    Enjoyable read.

  2. Ugh that is a horrible series of travel connections to make! But it provided us readers with a lovely slice of life :)

    1. I was hot and knackered; but I really got home thinking how wonderful it had been on that train. I wish it were always like this -- perhaps without the faulty air-con...


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