The Bomb that wasn’t..
Yesterday I travelled back from Cardiff to Brighton via London. Nothing particularly remarkable about that usually, although I am a bit jinxed when it comes to rail travel, and the first half of the journey was indeed fairly straightforward. I left Cardiff at 13.25 and reached London just after 3.30. Not being in a hurry and the weather being reasonable I decided to find out how long it would take to walk from Paddington to Victoria instead of taking the Underground. The answer is about 30 minutes. It’s also quite a nice walk through Hyde Park along the side of the Serpentine and then down to Victoria via Grosvenor Place. I was there just after 4pm.
Anyway, when I got to Victoria there was a huge crowd of people standing outside the station. I thought it was a bit early for the rush hour, but entered the station anyway. All the departure screens were blank. No trains in or out of Victoria for the foreseeable future. Shit.
I asked a policeman in the station what was going on and he told me that an unexploded bomb had been found near the track at Battersea Park just over the river from Victoria. The emergency services were looking into it and until they’d declared it safe no trains could pass it. He advised me to get to London Bridge station and take a Brighton train from there, but the tube station was inaccessible owing to the crowds and when I checked on my mobile it was obvious that no trains were moving from there anyway. I decided I had no choice but to wait for the problem to clear.
I went outside and waited, chatting to some of the others who were stuck like I was. After about an hour I went back inside and almost immediately a Brighton train appeared on the display screen. Platform 17. Hundreds of passengers crowded onto it until it was absolutely packed, standing room only and not much of that. Then the lights went out. Ten minutes later we were all told to get off and get on the train on Platform 16 instead. We did.
I had actually found a seat on the first train, which meant I was one of the last people off it when we had to move. I was standing on the second one as it trundled out of Victoria. Still, at least I was leaving. It was about 17.20, over an hour after I arrived in Victoria.
The train called at Clapham Junction, where more people tried to get on but couldn’t because we were already so full it was clearly dangerous. Similar story at East Croydon. Then we were approaching Gatwick Airport. We were held at a signal for about ten minutes when the driver announced that the train wouldn’t go to Brighton after all, but terminate at Gatwick.
When things like that happen you get the feeling that the train operators are deliberately making things as bad as possible. We were all heavily delayed already, so a decision was taken to make us even later. I was fuming.
Many people with flights to catch went into Gatwick airport, but I had to make my way against the tide to Platform 7, where the next train to Brighton was due just after six. It was an already overcrowded First Capital Connect train into which I had to squeeze. I stood all the way to Brighton, which took the best part of an hour. I got to Brighton station shortly before 7pm, almost three hours after I arrived at Victoria. People can cycle from London to Brighton in less time than that.
Now it transpires that the bomb at Battersea Park wasn’t a bomb at Battersea Park. It was a leaking gas cylinder. Had the police been confused or were they simply trying to make it seem more exciting than it was?
After I got home I continued to follow Southern Rail on Twitter. Although the bomb/gas cylinder was cleared by 5pm, the chaos on the railways continued until late at night, with cancellations across the entire network as the operations manager made panicky decisions that made a small emergency into a total implosion of the rail service. Heads should roll for this kind of screw-up, but I doubt they will.Follow @telescoper