A few weeks ago (26th October, 2019) I smiled and laughed more than I have in a very long time. I mean, real belly laughing, at times side splitting and crossed legged hilarity. So, was I at some amazing new comedians gig? Was I out with my friends catching up on old stories? No, last night I spent over 11 hours trying to get home to Dumfries from an NHS recruitment event in London through floods on the West Coast Train Service! With two NHS Dumfries and Galloway Colleagues.
You might wonder then if I am being ever so sarcastic in my saying I laughed and had a good time. The truth is I’m not. Yes it was a totally dire situation. And I am most definitely not saying I (we) won’t be claiming for the disruption and additional cost of this travel disaster (just in case Virgin Trains read this), but what I am about to tell you, I think, is a fine example of how NHS colleagues battle in the face of adversity and demonstrate the resilience required in our normal day to day work to get to our final destinations.
Allister Kelly and Craig Nicol are at the heart of this story- they were my trusty (tall) travel companions. Together as a team, for the 11 hours it took to get from London Euston to Dumfries, we kept each other’s spirits up, maintained our dignity (mostly) and professionalism and conquered our mission to the North!
It started with us all on a high from spending the previous 10 hours chatting to people who might be interested in coming to work in NHS Dumfries and Galloway at a recruitment event. (0ver 100 contacts were made). Boy did we hard sell our region, hospitals, community, housing stock, our colleagues and our work. In fact as a team, I feel like we won our task, made it through the board room with Lord Sugar and back to the house. After managing to dismantle the stand (that in itself could be another blog) and navigating ourselves on the tube back to Euston Station we hit Café Rouge for our treat. For the boys a well earned, well known American Brand soft drink. For me, sorry but it was much more Italian, white and flat. Having quenched our thirst, we headed for the train. We noted there was potential that it might be delayed due to the severe weather somewhere in the midlands but as the train was ‘being prepared’ all was looking good. Sure enough, the platform was announced and we made our way to our train and respective seats. Allister and Craig were together in one carriage and I was at the other (much more refined end) of the train. This happened due to us having booked separately at different times and to my being much more financially savvy than the others. Once settled the announcements started about the pressure on the Train Manager. There was a staff shortage on board. Staff shortages being nothing new to us, indeed the main reason for our journey I wasn’t that worried. But it was impacting my end of the train more than theirs. Needless to say, a WhatsApp group was established so that the gentle ribbing of my situation could commence. Note here please the quick establishment of remote technology enabled communications by this team. Some witty banter (apparently) later we started to hear the announcements from poor Helen the Train Manager about potential delays and floods that might impact our travel plans and journey North. We then start to begin the real comms about what we as a team plan to do- together- we all agreed that even with different final destinations, we would not separate. No man (or short woman) would be left behind.
Sit rep: Announcement on train for all to get off, this after agreement of the team that we would stay on.
From Mhairi “I’m hoping you stayed on the train [at that station] (smiley face)”
From Craig “Yes we did”
From Craig “I was nearly going to joke with you there but by the time I told you I was joking you could’ve been off and stranded (Smiley face)”
On arrival into Nuneaton, we wait for 45 minutes on the platform, to be informed about what is going to happen as we move north. I would just say at this point that I don’t have the time or the energy today, to document all the changes in this plan from Helen- who was most definitely doing a sterling job. Nor do I have the energy to document all our team planning and decision making to all of these changes. I did however have a long game of eye spy, via messenger, with my nurse friends in Newton Stewart. Something beginning with ‘T’.
We finally left Nuneaton at a snail’s pace- quote from Helen ‘Right, we are leaving. We will be moving at less than 5 miles per hour, in fact at times, it may not feel like we are even moving’. We weren’t. We were advised that we were going to Stafford, where it was advisable that as we needed to go further north, we should try to book either onward alternative transport – taxis etc, or book hotel rooms which will be refunded by Virgin. Some more WhatsApping took place between the team and after a quick search on some well known hotel apps, it became apparent that all people on the train and the three trains ahead of us were doing exactly the same. I missed rooms in the hotel chain App by seconds, so on the WhatsApp communication advice of the team we agreed I should go for any rooms available I could get. With 60 people looking at the rooms I had just found 6 miles outside of Stafford I decided to hit ‘book’ as quickly as possible. Secured by my trusty plastic debit card (I didn’t take my credit card for fear of spending too much money in the big smoke) and confirmed by phone we had 3 rooms for when we finally were to arrive. The hotel informed they had received many a call in the last half hour, but not to worry they would look after us. They didn’t have to; we never got to that hotel.
On arrival in Stafford, the train doors opened and a deluge of people poured onto all areas of the train. Any hope of our team managing to get back together totally lost. This mass of people consisted of the poor northerners who had been on the three trains ahead of us, who had been told to get off the train at Stafford. So why did we not get off and go to our hotel you might ask. Well a few reasons. These comrades in travel joining us had been advised that our train was going to carry on through the stops to Glasgow, may be slow and delayed but it was going. They had also been told prior to this, that they should book rooms in Birmingham or back in London (which many had) or find alternative transport which Virgin would pay for. One reported an Uber quote of over £500 to go 50 miles to go to Birmingham. Those that had booked rooms in Stafford had found that the town was surrounded in water and they were unable to get to their hotels due to this – also due to a lack of taxis to take them. A further announcement confirmed we were forging on, albeit it might only be to Preston where again alternative travel should be considered and arranged by us at Virgins expense, or indeed book more hotels. Twitter was very interesting during all of this and proved a useful, additional, but confusing information stream. As were the many conversations taking place around me and my team members 6 carriages up. However, our team maintained our comms and agreed we were staying put, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Virgin announcement on board confirmed that room’s booked and unused could still be claimed for. At this point it is 11 pm. We are all cold, getting a bit hungry , tried and thirsty (lack of staff situation on train and overcrowding ) and not really caring about the money bit…..however, we agreed that I would not cancel those rooms – not yet- thinking we still might need to turn back and attempt to get to them.
Finally, 90 minutes and over 40 Witty WhatsApp lines later at 0021 we arrive in Preston. I cancel the hotel politely via email as I am unable to get a phone signal.
During the twenty minutes prior to arrival, there was lots of chat throughout the train of ‘sit ins’ combining this, appropriately for the situation, with climate protests. On arrival though, different story, we were ‘told’ we had to get off – the train was leaving for the sidings and as such staff would instruct us on the platform. We disembarked.
I walked up the platform craning my neck to find my 6 foot companions over the masses. Needless to say, I saw them before they remembered to look down to find me in amongst the poor cold children with their very angry and stressed parents. A few ‘short’ jokes later, we took up our stance opposite the closed Starbucks coffee stand (Craig loves a Starbucks) and beside the shop window full of Gin and Tonic!
We immediately go into a well rehearsed ‘huddle’ and stamp our feet. We consider those windows and potential opening devices, consider emptying our cases and putting on all the clothes we have with us to keep warm. We discuss TV programmes and films – many of which Craig happily told us he didn’t remember as he wasn’t old enough to. We think he was joking; no one working with us can be that young! We banter, laugh, smile, swap stories with others-many of who are not in such good spirits. Of course we also with our laughter, attract the chat of very happily drunk young man joining the masses after a night out in Preston who thinks he is in line for a taxi home to Lancaster and who has never seen such a queue in all his life! ‘were you all our in Preston for the night? I didn’t think Preston was that good’. ‘Why is that train sitting there [on the platform] it could take us home; did the fat controller tell Edward to stay there?’ We had to admit, he had a point about the train still sitting there. With heating!
We discuss anatomy and physiology, mainly focussed on the length of time for frostbite and hypothermia to develop. The Glaswegians are put in a queue by the one stressed out, red fleeced wearing, and loud Virgin employee. They were then joined by the folks from Falkirk, the socialites from Stirling and the tourists heading for our capital city. The rest of us for Carlisle, Lockerbie, Dumfries etc are kept at the bottom of the ramp. More trains arrive, more people get off, more people are a bit shouty and eventually conform (or leave) and join queues.
We carry on our stamping of feet, banter and general chat about our Planes, Trains and Automobiles malarkey. We even laugh about how this is building into a good story for our partners and colleagues. Allister mentioned grandkids, but he was the mature one in the group. I generally hint that my story could only now be made better if Freddie Flintoff appears home in Preston and helps to keep us entertained. The addition of his chip van being with him was also considered a good idea. We laugh more at the fact that the team who went to recruit in Dublin thought they had a story as they missed the shuttle bus from the Airport to the venue!
Oh how I now wish this was the end of our story…….the hysteria was yet to arrive!
Having eventually been called to the top of the ramp and the top of the queue, we have a good wee chat with a Police Constable from the British Transport Police, who is on overtime due to the situation. He informs us of some interesting facts : Virgin were not going to arrange transport at which he says they as a statutory service did not think ‘was a good idea’. So his overtime was granted. He informed us that they were not aware of any closure of the M6 which would have limited travel by road north. The story we had been told earlier. He also informed us that had a three month old baby at home, who his wife had just texted to say had woken up unusually and so he had extended his overtime shiftJ. Clearly disgruntled travellers are a better option than a crying baby. We observed the atrocious behaviours of some citizens, who really did not appreciate that we were ’all in this together’ and that the small team now on site were trying to help them. We observed a mini bus driver being dropped off by what looked like his wife and settling himself at the wheel of an already full mini bus full of the folk from Falkirk. We noted how tired he looks and exclaim a bit of concern at this….
We waited and bantered a bit more with our friendly constable. We shared with him a need for him to go look at our own D&G Constabulary Facebook page, so that he could see that our behaviour, calmness, general friendliness and lack of stress is something which is fairly normal for our region. We also gave him a mission, as like Craig, he too is totally unaware of who Red Adair is (this is an ongoing concern of mine currently, as I have been quoting this man of late and finding I get blank looks).
Eventually, we get a black Hackney Carriage allocated to us and the driver is informed he is taking us to Carlisle. We are joined by a man from Carlisle who has probably had a worse day than us. He had travelled to London to watch Carlisle play football (1-1 draw). He left his sons in a hotel in Stafford.
We set off out of Preston. We stop at a Petrol Station, full of black cabs and mini buses. We laugh when the taxi driver informs us he needs to fill up, ‘Carlisle is long way’. We chat to the new member of our team about our adventure so far.
We hit the M6. For the next 86 miles (94 minutes), none of us speak. Craig looks at his phone (notably the M6 map he was following us on). Allister is in the middle looking straight between the seats to the front window, he occasionally closes his eyes. Carlisle man, travelling backwards facing me, looks out into the dark, holding tightly to the same yellow grab rail as me. I try hard not to get too close in contact with either Allister or Carlisle man until I don’t care about that anymore as I am too (sweary word here) scared to care!
The driver stays in the middle lane, cars undertake us. Cars overtake us. I watch the clock and the road signs for Carlisle, counting down the minutes. He moves to the inside lane. His foot appears to be very heavy on the pedal and we are speeding up rapidly. He drives onto the cats eyes for a while, we eventually slow again for a bit and move into one lane (as opposed to across all 3). Repeat. We overtake Lorries; I close my eyes every time we overtake. We drive on the cats eyes- bumpity, bumpity bump. We drive with the cats eyes between the wheels. We lose body fluid when the car overtaking us blasts his horn and flashes his lights and we move again into one lane again. I’m freezing, but if the driver’s window being open and no heating on is what is keeping him driving as safely as he is, then I resign myself to frostbite. I don’t want to shout are you awake, for fear the driver is sleeping and the fright sends him across the road again, so I cough a few times in the hope he hears it. I consider messaging my husband to tell him I love him. I wonder if I it is better to crash high speed into the central reservation or onto the banking. I wonder this again when there appears to be a 200 foot black hole to the left of the road; I think we are about Shap. It is dark. I look at the others; they seem okay, smiling at each other. I think to myself, ‘stop it, you’re paranoid and a bad passenger’. I wonder if my driving has this effect on people. I wonder if I did tell my husband what I want for my funeral. I see Southwaite Services and think it would be really unlucky to crash at this point in the journey, so close to Carlisle. We take the slip road for Carlisle and I am almost thanking a religious god I don’t necessarily believe in. I am thankful too early. We are now driving in the wrong lane in the city. There is little traffic I thank that religious being again.
We arrive in front of the road closure at Botchergate. The driver informs us he cannot get us to the station. There are some comments made from Carlisle man about going down a little road, we exchange some glances and we get out. We check the cab for all bags that have been thrown around. We shout ‘thanks’, Carlisle man leaves us. Taxi drives off. We stand on the pavement, look at one another and then……..all exclaim rapidly how we thought we were going to die! We literally bend over laughing…. It is probably the closest I have ever come to actual ROFL!
This continues for about three minutes and then still laughing and supporting one another, we head up Botchergate to the station. The local police, herding the drunk, walking dead youngsters of Carlisle give us a cheery hello in passing. I note the youngsters out and about probably look more like their Halloween characters now than they would have when they left their homes to come out tonight. (Halloween week). Although, as Allister said, if scary, grim, death masked, horror faces were a competition criteria, it would have been a no- contest as we had miraculously emerged from “Indiana Jones and the Taxi of Doom”
I wonder if any of them even wondered what we were about. What are a 5 foot woman and two six feet tall men, with cases, in business attire, doing walking up the Botchergate at 3 am (or 2 am, as the clocks changed an hour ago). We laugh at the fact that we are all now looking at these young people and expressing the same things our parents said to us 30 years ago (10 for Craig). It all makes sense now….but I do still wonder if that girl really did actually have any clothes on?!
We arrive at the car in the car park. The ticket machine to pay for parking is in the locked station. We drive to the barrier and Craig presses the telephone help button. A guy answers. Craig says “I’ve been on a delayed train then in a taxi to get to here and now I don’t know how to pay to get my car out as the machine is in the station”. Note, even after all this, there is a hint we might even pay for the parking. The best answer arrives “ah, okay, is that the barrier opening for you now?” at this the barrier rises and signals our freedom to the open road, with a good driver (I hoped and was relieved). We set off to Lockerbie to get my Jiggy (my mini’s name) and head for home.
Jiggy picked up at Lockerbie and a convoy into Dumfries ensues, with my arriving home at 5 am. I had a last little bit of hassle breaking into my own house as my husband thinks I am in a hotel in Stafford (what he doesn’t know in times like this doesn’t hurt him) and collapse.
So this morning, I do two things of importance when I get up.
- Check the news to make sure no taxi drivers died on the M6 between Carlisle and Preston (they didn’t)
- Messaged my colleagues friends on WhatsApp to thank them for making this terrible journey the best if possible could be.
- Write this down…..
Now all we need is for all of that to result in some health or social care staff to be successfully recruited from our trip to London. Who needs team building when you can attend a recruitment event!