For the first two or so hours of its scheduled run, the Monday 16:40 direct train from London Euston to Edinburgh Waverley had been delightfully normal. The train was neither too full, too cold nor too loud. It was boring – blissfully so. There was no sign of the odyssey to come.
An email arrived on our phones, its title evoking The Twilight Zone: “Your train has changed.” It got worse, and stranger: “Your train has been cancelled.” That’s one of the odder announcements you can receive while rolling along on the train in question.
It was news to the train manager, who learned of the email – of their fate and ours – from us, the passengers. A short time later, they returned. “The rumours are true,” they said. The train was cancelled. Everyone would disembark at Preston.
How you see this depends on your knowledge of Preston: what it is – a town, a city, the home of Fishergate shopping centre? – and where it is. Google Maps presented it as some sort of inland Blackpool.
A connecting train to Glasgow was meant to be waiting there – the right country but not the right destination, and a solution that presented further travel issues. In the event, it wasn’t a solution at all as the Glasgow connection arrived crammed with other displaced passengers. Many of us rushed across the Preston platforms, only to see our connecting train disconnect from us and all our hopes as it departed the station.
Another train would soon arrive, we were told. In the great tradition of British timekeeping, “soon” meant in about 90 minutes. In the great tradition of British rail, that train was then cancelled.
So what to do on a Monday night in Preston? Friendly locals wandered by to suggest we get drunk at whichever pub they were either heading to or heading from. And the colder it got, the more appealing that became.
A solution was needed; a solution arrived. It was not the solution anyone expected. Dunkirk had small boats; we had something more modern but just as ambitious – out of the blue on a cold dark night came a convoy of taxis.
Sedans, vans, saloons and black cabs arrived to ferry travellers “north”. That must have been some call to the minicab office: “Hello, can we have cabs for 200 please.”
As people waited in turn, to sit with strangers and travel for 180 miles and three hours into another country, there was concern: would there be enough to go around? Would Preston run out of cabs?
Then, as we all set off, further questions, to which the answers, worryingly, seemed to be: yes. Can a GPS get you lost on a drive requiring only Britain’s main roads? Is it doing it on purpose? Is this where AI is taking us in the bold, bright future? Is the driver OK, or is he “drifting” slightly at the wheel?
It was a surreal experience: both solitary and communal. None of our cab’s occupants exchanged names, presumably so we could never reconnect, never meet and never talk about that night again. Sincere apologies to any of them reading this. If you feel triggered, reach out for help.
My story of the journey, posted in increasingly frantic tones through the night on Twitter, was shared over and over again, presumably by those with their own tales of transport woe. Be it problems with flights or buses or coaches or on the roads, everyone understands the plight of the stranded, bewildered, careworn traveller. Everyone feels our pain.
And in the aftermath we look for answers, but still nothing adds up. Despite the national discussion of our marathon, no one from the rail network has quite managed to explain how a 5h 41m direct route ended up taking 11 hours via an extra city and a couple of service stops. (An Avanti West Coast spokesperson said the cancellations were due to a “track defect” – must have been a biggie.) No one has quite managed to explain why, despite previous cancellations at Preston, a more organised contingency plan was not in place to support passengers and staff – one that didn’t involve a baffling taxi ride throughout the night.
When the regular users of a train appear more informed than the staff, it’s not just the tracks that have issues. If opting to travel by train results in entering a Twilight Zone, is anyone surprised that so many turn to Ryanair and easyJet? And spare a thought for the train manager: hopefully they made it home.
James Nokise is a standup comedian