’How long have you been travelling?’ said the man across from me.
There were six of us sharing two adjacent tables in the train. The train had been stationary for half an hour. There had been several announcements, promising to let us know what was going to happen as soon as the announcer knew what was going to happen. There were floods up the line. There were other trains in front of us up the line. The announcer's voice had started off friendly and efficient, but was beginning to sound frayed and tense.
‘I set off from Crewe this morning at about ten,’ I said.
‘This train didn't come via Crewe,’ said the woman next to me.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘I didn't set off on this train. I had to get the train from Crewe to Birmingham, then change.’
‘This train didn't come via Birmingham either,’ said the woman tensely.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘I changed again at Tamworth.’
‘On purpose?’ she said.
I thought back. It seemed such a long time ago.
‘I'm not sure,’ I said. ‘I think it just seemed a good idea at the time. I hadn't changed trains for a while, and I was getting nervous of being on the wrong train, or at least of being on the right train for too long. How about you?’
‘I've been trying to get from Bristol to Newcastle all day,’ she said. ‘And all that's happened so far is that I've been to Birmingham - twice.’
We all gasped, on cue.
‘How did that happen?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘we were told to get off the train at Birmingham New Street because there were floods ahead, and we would have to get a coach to the other side of the flooded area and get another train. So we all got on the coach and drove for hours and hours, and the bus driver was on his mobile a lot, and finally we arrived back at Birmingham, and we were told the train we had originally been changing to had left without us and we were going back to get another train which would bypass the flooded area. So we got a coach from Birmingham to Birmingham. It took about two hours. I think that must be a record.’
She looked frazzled and tense but also proud.
"I think I can beat that," said the young man in the far window seat.
We remained silent to give him the chance.
‘I was coming by a cross-country train from Nottingham to link up with a connection at Birmingham to get to an important meeting in Exeter... Anyway, we too got to a flooded area, and the train stopped and the guard announced that it was too deep to go through and we would be going back down the line. But there was a man sailing about on the floods in a dinghy, and I could see a big road on the far side of the water, so I shouted to him to ask if he would sail me across so I could hitch hike to Birmingham, and he shouted back that he would, so I transferred to boat, and then hitched to Tamworth where I got this train. I think that must be a record.’
‘I don't know so much,’ said a sad-faced man sitting opposite. ‘I think I can beat that.’
‘Where are you trying to get to?’ said someone.
‘Nowhere,’ said the man. ‘At least, I'm trying to get back home. But not by train. An hour ago I was out on a walking holiday in the middle of the country, and I came to this railway line. There was a train standing still in the middle of nowhere. I had been feeling ravenous for an hour or two and had no food on me, so when I realised there was a buffet right above me on the train, I jumped up and got in through the door. Thought I'd buy a sandwich and jump out again. Unfortunately, the train moved on again before I could get off. Now I don't know where I am.’
There was a silence.
‘Can't beat that,’ I said.
‘I can,’ said a voice. It was an American who hadn't spoken at all yet. ‘I've had a worse journey than all of you.’
‘Where are you going to?’ I said.
‘I'm going round the world by train,’ he said. ‘I've been travelling now for four months. I started in Shanghai. Let me tell you all about it. That first morning, I was going to get the 9.09 to Nanking, but it had been cancelled due to an earth slip, so I decided to take another line. Unfortunately, I must have missed an announcement, because ...’
Spontaneously we all leaped on him, tied and gagged him so he was unable to speak, and discussed the forthcoming election instead.
The Independent Wed Feb 14 2001