My travelling woes were as follows. After fighting through blizzards and snowdrifts to get to the train station (where blizzard = snowfall and drifts = puddles of slush, but they tend to morph as time passes), and with a cold coming on, it turned out that the train was hoaching and there were no seat reservations and my luggage had to go at the opposite end of the coach I ended up finding a seat in.
Nothing unremarkable for a north-bound train at this time of year, but the woes worsened. First, the middle engine failed. Then, the front engine failed. An early indicator of trouble was the lights in the carriage suddenly cutting out, along with the air ventilation system, meaning that for a few minutes the train glided along silently in the near-complete darkness. Spooky. Things sprang back to life fairly quickly, but only temporarily. Somewhere around Perth, after most of the passengers had decanted, the heating failed altogether. By Pitlochry, the word had got out that we weren’t getting heating back, and we were having to travel at reduced speed, and it was all due to the freezing temperatures, with which the engines couldn’t cope, and we should just be glad we were moving at all.
As things got colder and colder, the human spirit really began to show through. Nothing like a crisis, for bringing out the best in people. Thus we had:
1. The Moan. Youngish, from the north of England, she took the opportunity roughly every twenty minutes to call up her hostess in Inverness to say that she ‘couldn’t take any more’ and although she had no idea where the train was, wanted the telephonee to find her a hotel at the next stop, where she would ‘get off and walk’. This was all immensely cheering.
2. The stoical Belgian. Had been on the train all day, starting with EuroStar at 6am. You either laugh or you must cry, he said. It is better to laugh.
3. The irrepressible English couple. Tremendously well-mannered, they remained resolutely cheery throughout, although they did escape early, in some obscure station several stops short of Inverness.
4. The Expert. Knew before everyone else exactly what the problem was and made free with advice to the conductor in a most helpful manner once it became clear that the conductor and driver had things in hand.
5. The Complainer. This lady was not in my carriage, but after we’d spent a fruitless hour in Aviemore attempting to be coupled to a rescue engine sent down from Inverness (to appreciate the full horror of this, at -16°C, please be aware that Aviemore should only be half an hour from Inverness under normal conditions) the entire train got transferred onto the single carriage that had come down from Inverness. There the conductor – now swathed in a proper winter coat, instead of the mere blazer in which she had previously patrolled the train, dispensing optimism and patiently answering endless enquiries (not to mention helping fix things out of doors, at the -16°C) – made an apologetic stop at the Complainer’s table to placate her with instructions for how to make an official complaint to ScotRail, a note of her own name, and yet another clearly heartfelt apology. She stopped at our table next – but only to say that she’d run out of complaint forms. I was aghast. Our table told her she’d done a great job, and we wouldn’t be complaining. It was all quite astonishing. I trust I will always fail to understand why it ever seems helpful to people to feel the need to make Official Complaints, when there is quite clearly nobody to blame and nothing to be done to reduce discomfort beyond putting up with it.
So we only reached Inverness two hours late. And my lovely hosts had hot chocolate and a hot water bottle ready and waiting. Bliss. But I never did manage to parse what was being displayed on the electronic message board in Aviemore, despite having had a whole hour in which to ponder it: SERVICE DISRUPTION WEATHER.