What follows is related more in sorrow than in anger, but you are reminded that this is not an exceptional experience on today’s fragmented railway.
Yesterday evening I had arranged to meet up with some pals from Chester in Liverpool. The occasion was the city’s 40th CAMRA Beer Festival, held in the Lutyens Crypt by the Metropolitan Cathedral. As there would be plenty of beer consumed, it made sense for us all to travel by train and let someone else drive.
Liverpool's Lime Street station: Rather elusive yesterday evening
Liverpool is just 35 miles from Crewe by rail. There are fast and frequent electric train services, with return possible right up to 2335 hours. So what could possibly go wrong?
Wires down at Runcorn. That’s what.
Quite apart from this being a worrying occurrence - the electrification from Crewe to Liverpool was energised in 1962, and the older installations of overhead line are usually less prone to this kind of thing - the train service more or less collapsed on the spot.
Avanti West Coast, as successors to Virgin Trains, diverted their Liverpool trains to Warrington, terminating most of them there (one got through later in the evening, arriving into Lime Street at around 2130 hours).
London Northwestern Railway simply abandoned the service north of Crewe. So anyone wanting to travel from Winsford, Hartford or Acton Bridge - you were stuffed.
This is despite there being an electrified alternative route via Warrington and Earlestown.
The excuse from LNW would probably be that their franchise bid did not include having their drivers learn the road from Weaver Junction via Warrington and Earlestown to Liverpool. And the railway is now compartmentalised and fragmented, so the idea of there being any drivers on hand who did sign the road, or who might have been able to act as pilotman, was for the birds.
So what happened then?
Simples. Effectively, travelling via Chester was made the primary alternative route, and was displayed as such on the departure boards at Crewe.
The result? The 1724 Transport for Wales Crewe to Chester shuttle - a two-coach unit which would normally be ample for the custom on offer - became so obscenely overcrowded that its departure was delayed for around 10 minutes as the driver couldn’t get the unit to move. Door interlock problem. Like they couldn’t be closed properly.
But at least this train arrived at Chester in time for the 1801 Merseyrail for Liverpool, which was in turn horribly overloaded. Travel experience less than pleasant, but at least it was “only” 1 hour 20 minutes. The fun and games really kicked off on the way home.
A lot of beer in a cold-ish crypt (thanks due to one of the Chester crowd)
To ensure getting back to Crewe, departure from Lime Street had to be moved forward to 2143 hours, or almost two hours before the last LNW direct service, which of course was not running. The Merseyrail service arrived at Chester in time for the 2230 Transport for Wales to Crewe. The latter should have been waiting on Platform 4. But it was not waiting, because, you guessed it, it had been cancelled. No reason was provided. It just was.
There was another train, though, at just after 2300 hours. So I repaired to the Town Crier for a swift pint in the warm. Then back to Chester station. Where the train was advertised as departing from Platform 1. But it wasn’t; this was an empty unit going to the depot.
Then it would go from Platform 3. But it was “delayed”. How “delayed” it was was not apparent. Then, you guessed it, on a windy and bitterly cold night, it was going to be half an hour late, there having been a signal failure at Rhyl. It actually left for Crewe around 40 minutes late. Information provision at Chester was abysmal.
Journey time around 2 hours 20 minutes. Or, to put it in the direct language which ordinary punters would be using by this point, totally unacceptable and inexcusable with it.
Because, let us not drive this one around the houses for too long, while individual train operators shrug their shoulders and dodge blame, and someone somewhere prepares to trot out the routine apology relaying their regret that the service fell short of what might have been expected, this was the kind of travel experience that puts people off. Totally.
And those people that have been put off are unlikely to want to return to the railway - or, whisper it quietly, recommend that travel mode to others. That’s not good enough.APPEAL The Legalballs Fund: I made a mistake. Now I need to raise £16,500 to cover a legal bill. You can chip in to help me HERE - all help is gratefully received. Thanks for reading this far!