Thousands of people make their way from London airports and train stations every Christmas season. With quite a mass of travellers, trouble is just waiting to happen.
This year was no exception. Being an island exposed to hazards from all directions has not helped Great Britain to learn to cope with even minor weather disturbances. In a classic fashion, snow fell out shortly before the Christmas airport rush began, paralysing the most remote London airports such as Luton and Gatwick. The latter remained closed for one morning, with severely disturbed train connections to central London and within the airport. Not even to mention the saga that is Eurostar – thousands of stranded passengers regularly slept over at St Pancras International station for about a week up to Christmas Eve itself. Seriously, some countries are just not designed to withstand snow. And those countries don’t have to be situated in the tropics.
My expectations for my own flight home were therefore rather low. I was due to fly out on Christmas Eve, 24 December. The weather conditions were however promising; after a week of freezing temperatures, we were back in the reds. The snow has stopped falling and pretty much all vanished in the regained warmth. Rain is something England faces frequently enough to tolerate. Thameslink train services to Gatwick were disrupted, but slower Southern were operating. My train departed on time. My flight’s reported delay was only 30 minutes. It was all perfect! Could I ever be so lucky?
Of course not. After 50 minutes of snail-pace travel, the train stopped at Horley, the final station before Gatwick airport. And stood there. And stood there in the middle of nowhere, beyond any imaginary time limits. Passengers were eyeing each other, silent question reflected in their eyes.
And then the voice of the driver sounded. The train was being held there for a reason. Some woman reportedly dropped something onto the rail tracks and wanted it retrieved immediately, which was rather dangerous given that the train would have to be climbed under. She wouldn’t leave the train to retrieve the lost possession once the train carries on, since that obviously meant that she would have to wait for the next train. Police was being called to bring some reason into the woman or use other methods. The train would be held at the station until the situation is resolved.
We glanced at each other, some outraged, some rather amused. One woman stranding four carriages full of passengers, on Christmas Eve, one stop away from the airport? In the absence of any other obstacles to fly? It sounded more like a joke than reality.
There was ample time before my own flight, so I went to investigate the situation. The woman’s squealing voice could be heard from afar. I found her exploding to someone on the phone about the “entire train” being grossly “unreasonable”. She looked well dressed, as were four little children behind her – three old enough to walk and an infant in a pram. It must have been something pretty valuable that fell under the train. What was it, I asked?
The people around pointed at the pram. Nothing seemed wrong with it. Then my eyes fell on a little attachment with three wheels. One wheel was missing. The attachment could be folded upwards, meaning that the pram was still fully functional. How much could the attachment cost? How difficult would it be for the woman to step off the train, have the wheel retrieved and depart on the next train after 20 minutes? Her children, of whom the oldest could not be beyond 6, were crying out loud behind her, but she was too busy proving her case. She was the right one. The rest of us were insensitive monsters incapable of stepping into her shoes.
After about 30 minutes of endless arguing, the police still failed to arrive and my check-in time was mercilessly approaching. Some desperate passengers got to the point of screaming at the woman for whom they were risking their Christmas flights. Before I could really worry myself, however, an identical train had arrived at the adjacent platform. Most of us fled, leaving the woman and her weeping children one-to-one with the train attendants.
I hence missed the end of the story, but at least I have seen the most interesting part. The part which explains why I find this country amusing and frustrating at the same time.
Good luck to all getting home this Christmas!