Friday, 7 October 2011
Today I spent two and a half hours on a train that didn't really go much beyond Deptford. I'd made an effort to get on a much earlier train to get in for a meeting so the irony of not getting in at all wasn't lost on me.
It seems that shortly after passing through Deptford (the first time) the train lost any ability to pick up electrical power from the tracks and consequently we couldn't go anywhere. This was a bit annoying but I didn't think it would be much of a problem and wasn't too bothered about it, it's happened before and usually after 'rebooting' the train all is well. While waiting I sent out a few tweets every now and again.
The nice thing was - and I appreciate it's a bit unusual for me to be sending much praise to #SouthEastern - was the quality and frequency of the train driver's communications to us about what was going on and who was involved in trying to fix things.
Note that this is the train company whose abysmal efforts during the snow earlier in the year resulted in questions in Parliament about their pathetic efforts and questions from bloggers about their fitness to run their franchise. No-one's too surprised that trains struggle on slippery icy tracks or that they physically can't get out of their ' housings' or that the drivers can't turn up because they're snowed in or that there are signalling problems. The difficulty was that none of these problems was communicated across the network, either via the display boards or via their website. As always people tweeting updates on the #southeastern hashtag is how anyone found anything out.
But today was different, at least for those of us on the stuck train. The driver was in touch with us many times throughout the two and a half hours to let us know what the problem seemed to be, what she might have to try to do to fix it and then when that didn't work she kept us updated on other rail staff walking up the track to look at the train. She told us about the 'shoe gear' which is something that connects with the live rail and completes the electrical circuit - she thought it might have fallen off or been damaged and a fitter was going to come and have a look. We also had a Field Marshall and someone whose job title is Manager of Movements (snigger) visit us at one point. People walked up and down the outside of the train and then inside the train for good measure.
When we lost power completely the risk was that the main doors, being no longer under power, became unlocked and were liable to open if leaned on - she explained this to everyone and asked that people stand away from them. I don't think people had to be asked twice.
I'd quite happily have heard more about how trains work from her although I think she was chatting to the signal people every bit as much as us and probably didn't have too much time to ruminate on train engineering.
Then things got a bit more dramatic when she announced that they'd tried everything and the train was absolutely stuck - the next plan was to manoeuvre a second train onto the track alongside us and presumably we'd all make a sideways jump into the new train. I was relieved that no-one was asking me to get on the tracks but I wondered how some of the older or more anxious passengers might be feeling. To be honest my parents wouldn't have liked this much, and I'd have hoped that someone would have given them a seat if they were standing. But for me, it was quite exciting and I carried on tweeting friends and emailed colleagues to let them know where I was / wasn't.
Eventually the decision was made to roll the train backwards to Deptford as apparently the viaduct we were stuck on is uphill of the station and gravity could lend a hand (it really didn't look very hilly though) - we knew this would still take a long time because there were several trains backed up behind us. The train immediately behind us was going to travel back to Greenwich so that we could take up the space in Deptford. While the train behind us had power and could travel at any speed it wanted, because it was making an unscheduled backwards journey it had to go at 5mph for safety.
At some point the previous train must have done this successfully as our driver announced that we were now going to try and go backwards. We lurched off and then stopped fairly suddenly. I wondered if this meant we were stuck but somehow at that point we seemed to recover a bit of power (the things that normally scroll information about the final destination and intermediate stops said "Electrostar" again, which it had managed to say earlier on before power died) and we even picked up a little bit of speed, but not much. Eventually we were deposited at Depftord where it took a good 20 minutes to get everyone out of the station and onto whatever their "onward journey" was. For me this was home as the network was by now a bit seriously disordered and I wasn't keen to get back on another train for a bit.
As I left I managed to say thanks to the driver - I hope her employers appreciate her efforts. We certainly did on Twitter and on the carriage I was on. Her announcements were regular, as comprehensive as they could be given the limited information available and she even told us about some of the technical stuff - at one point she mentioned that the engineers could remotely download some information from the train to pinpoint where the fault might be (early on it wasn't sure if it was the track or the train but it turned out to be the train). She was brilliant and in a situation that could have become a bit claustrophobic and panicky she did a really good job of preventing that.
Of course it was up to us to communicate her updates to us to everyone else on Twitter because they were stuck at various points across the network and I don't know how much information they were getting from SouthEastern. A couple of tweets indicated that one driver had announced that he had no information and was requesting that his passengers let him know of any that came in via Twitter. Ha!
If that's the worst thing that worries me this week then I'm really not doing too badly - one mustn't lose one's perspective in these things! But I wanted to record my gratitude to the driver and to say how impressed I was with her professionalism and efforts in keeping us informed, and calm... and safely on the train until it was time to alight.
My new policy: never get on a train without something to drink or something to eat. Go to the loo when you get a chance. Bring a book.