It's when the word "probably" starts to creep into the vocabulary that you know you're really in trouble.
The guard welcomes passengers aboard his train at Kensington with a weary, despairing sigh, before announcing that it'll probably be
calling at Watford Junction, Leighton Buzzard, Bletchley, Milton Keynes and Rugby. He's in no mood to take the game to
its next level by reading out a list of stations that it could "possibly" call at - Norwich, Torquay, Inverness, Bangor, perhaps - but
that'll surely come in the future.
It's Thursday. We're on our way to Glasgow. It's a seven hour journey, so we're expecting a fairly arduous trip. We don't yet
know that, by the time we arrive, we'll be desperately clinging onto what's left of our sanity.
Our train arrives at Watford. Thanks to a signal failure at Earlswood, it's fifteen minutes late. We've missed our
connection...except we haven't, because Virgin couldn't find anyone to drive the train and it's also fifteen minutes
late. Giving three cheers for Richard Branson, we climb aboard. It will be our home for
the next eight hours.
We travel north. Slowly. Outside, only darkness...no landmarks, no lights, no idea where we are or where
we're going. We stop. We start again, slowly. We stop again. We reach Rugby. It takes about three hours. Our train manager - Steve, whose
deadpan voice will become very familiar to us - announces that there's a derailment at Stafford and threatens
"severe" delays. We settle in for the duration.
To avoid Stafford, we'll be going via Stoke. From Stoke, we'll be travelling south (obviously) to Stafford and then
resuming our journey. Steve no longer has any idea when, or even if, we're going to arrive at our eventual
destination and is merely trying to avoid being lynched, something which he achieves with a combination of unerring courtesy
and promises of refunds.
Anarchy is descending. The queue for the buffet is the length of three carriages. Inevitably, the alcohol runs out. Then the food. Then everything apart
from tea, coffee, giant lollipops and Tic-Tacs. We buy anything that's available, hoarding supplies to delay the inevitability of
turning to cannibalism.
We arrive at Stoke. We stay at Stoke for an eternity, before starting to reverse. We arrive at Stafford. We stay
at Stafford for another eternity, then begin to head in the right direction. It's nearly midnight. According to Steve, our
estimated time of arrival is three o'clock in the morning...and we all know that, in railway speak, "estimated" always
We stop again. There's a signal failure ahead. Steve starts to recalculate his predictions...but, mercifully, it's not a
long delay. Anyway, time no longer has any meaning to us. Trapped in our set of over-crowded carriages, we have no knowledge
of anything external, we have left civilisation behind.
A new voice comes over the tannoy. A female voice, grave and serious. The kind of voice that could read the news bulletin
that announces the end of the world. All goes quiet. We listen, expecting the worst. "Will any customers purchasing tea and
coffee from the buffet car please bring a bag to carry them, because we've run out." The whole place explodes into riotous laughter and
hysteria takes over. People with mobile phones attempt to explain what's happening to loved ones and end up lost for
words, greeted by gales of guffaws from everyone else. We could be anywhere, we may never be seen again, and we're in
fits of giggles.
Finding it impossible to sleep on trains, I finish my book and wander along the train. It's a scene of total devastation -
people, luggage, litter. We pass through deserted stations, towns that have long since turned the lights out and gone to
bed. When we arrive in Glasgow, it's nearly half past three in the morning. We reach the hotel at four, book alarm
calls for eight, and go to bed.
In the morning, we make our presentation, barely able to remember our own names.
The train back is even more crowded and, due to the Railtrack speed restrictions, is delayed by about an hour. When we reach
Milton Keynes - a better option than trying to drag a touchscreen monitor and box through the Underground - we're exhausted
and hungry and thirsty and desperate. I go in search of refreshments and find that everything's closed, except a
stall selling flowers and boiled sweets. There's a drinks machine...but, inevitably, it's broken. Screens play a trailer for
"Shaft", over and over. It's eleven o'clock, I've had three hours of sleep, I want to go home.
When we arrive at East Croydon, we find yet more chaos. The rain is pelting down, there are rumours of flooding on the
line. The only trains that aren't delayed are the ones that have already been cancelled. We've travelled hundreds of
miles, and Brighton still seems a similar distance away.
As it turns out, the problems are caused by a breakdown just outside Brighton. The passengers eventually decided
to take control of their own situation and left the train - since the area's tracks have a live rail, the power was switched
off to avoid disaster. Every train for the last six hours is still out there somewhere. None of them is going
anywhere in the forseeable future.
With no prospect of reaching Brighton before dawn, we've had enough. We manage to get as far as Haywards Heath.
We phone for help. We beg for mercy.
We get a lift.