4th November, 2000. Watford v Grimsby, at the end of two weeks of railway hell in the aftermath of the Hatfield crash and safety checks, compounded by floods. (How unexpected, rain in Britain in the autumn. Exceptional weather conditions, my arse.)
The day started okay, the 8:55 from Colwyn Bay was about two minutes early, but that's as good as it got. Same coach as last time. QPR, hmm, 3-1, that'll do nicely. Same seat even, I recognised the rip in the cloth and, yes, the same wad of used gum under the table. Yuk. I think I first travelled in this coach in 1963. And to think the French can develop the TGV. By Crewe it was fifteen minutes late, turning a 9:56 arrival and what should have been a stroll across the platform with time to get a coffee and a croissant before stepping onto the 10:11 from Crewe for Milton Keynes, into a 10:11 arrival and panic-stricken wheeze across the platform to see....
A crowd of passengers looking at the departures display and working out how late each train was running. Turns out the 10:11 has been optimistically re-titled the 10:51. Suddenly out of nowhere, a train appears. It's going to Euston, calling at MK and also (can this be possible?) Watford Junction. That's the very chap for me. "Oh, no it isn't!", says the pantomime f***ing villainous railway numb-nut employed to despatch trains from this platform. "You can't get on this train with that ticket. Virgin have re-instated normal ticket conditions today. If it was up to me I'd be happy to let you on, but it's more than my job's worth." He actually said that. Without a trace of irony. Today is normal? Go and tell that to those people over there, dickhead. Still, no point ranting at him, it's obviously not his fault. His moronic burbling was, in fact, a very subtle ploy to buy enough time for the guard to lock the doors while my attention was diverted. Bastard. Whatever happened to trains with doors that fell open? At least you could leap in at any point up to half-a-mile beyond the end of the platform if you ran fast enough. Oh well, back across the bridge to await salvation in the form of the newly-named 11:03 to Euston. The train formerly known as the 10:51, formerly known as.... To be fair, it did turn up at 11:03, and my reserved seat was still reserved for me. Off we go, Watford by about half-one, plenty of time for a couple of pints and a bite to eat.
"Good morning ladies and gentlemen, this is Tony, your Train Manager, welcoming you aboard the late-running 10:11 from Crewe. The late running of this train is due to safety checks imposed on all train operators by Railtrack and is beyond the control of Virgin Trains. All other rail operators are also suffering delays because of this and also because of the heavy rain and flooding."
Hold it right there, Tony. Let's go through that again, point by point.
One. I don't care what your name is. Sorry, that's the way it is. I'm sure you're a lovely bloke, but I really don't want to be friends with you. What is it, with all this touchy-feely crap these days? I mean, I'm all for informality, casual dress in the office, first-name terms with the Sales Director, and stuff like that, and I will never get used to being called Sir or Mr Jones, but you can go too far down this matey route.
Two. Train manager? Bollocks. Ticket Collector, yes. Guard, yes. Train Manager, well, let's see you manage to get this train to MK by 11:33, like the timetable says.
Three. We (the travelling public) are not stupid, we know why the f***ing trains are late, we've all got tellies, we all watch the news.
Four. Why do we (the British) take a good idea (customer service) and turn it into an exercise in arse-covering? Don't shout at me, I can't put it right, I didn't do it, it's not my fault. I know all that, but you, Tony, seem to be making a carefully worded statement which clears the way for Virgin Trains to refuse to give any refunds to any passengers because, hell, just because you told me there'd be a train from Crewe at 10:11 arriving in MK at 11:33 and sold me a ticket for this alleged train and made sure in the small print that I'd lose most of my money if I decided not to travel by train and take the car instead, and then just because you failed to run the train you'd promised, for which you sold me a ticket, hell, no reason at all why you should feel in any way responsible or sorry or liable to me in any f***ing way. At all.
Rant over. Back to the journey, and one of my favourite pastimes, people-watching. It is absolutely impossible to avoid listening to every word of the conversation of an all-female group of American tourists. Normally, I love to listen to other people's chat, but this is so vapid, it's mostly about Bruce and Demi. The motor-mouth of the group tells the world she'd like kids one day, but she's not sure about marriage. No problem there, lady, you don't stop talking long enough to draw breath, let alone give a bloke time to ask you out.
During an interminable 20mph bumble through the Midlands via Northampton, Tony explained that the diversion was due to vandals trespassing on the line and this was neither his nor Virgin's fault, and then (in Northampton) our mate Tony also remembered to tell us that the buffet had closed at Rugby because the outside caterers employed by Virgin had sent a message to their staff that they were to close immediately and work another service back to Glasgow. This, of course, was neither his nor Virgin's fault. Ever heard of vicarious liability, Tony?
Eventually, the train arrived in Milton Keynes at 13:33. "When is the next train to Watford?", I asked the train despatcher. "13:27's a few minutes late", he said, "it'll be here soon". I looked up the straight stretch of track leading into the station. No approaching train in sight. Time to nip upstairs to the ticket office and get my Watford Season Ticket half-price Cheap Day Return to cover this stage of the journey (no fare-dodging from this writer), but the train was announced as I joined the queue, so I legged it back to the platform just in time to see the tail lights disappearing towards Bletchley. Bastard, bastard, bastard. Where the f*** did that come from? There was nothing in sight up the line, and everything is travelling at 10mph there. How can it have got into the platform so quick? Bastard. Now I'll never make it by kick-off.
Back up to the ticket office, only to find one window occupied by a man who is filling out his railcard application form and the other by a group of six who seem to be paying for six tickets by means of six separate credit card transactions. Bastards. Get a ticket, back to the platform, next train to Watford is at 13:58, running on time. Maybe I will make it, after all.
At 13:53 a Freightliner train pulls into the only Watford-bound track in the station. And stops. And breaks down. F*** OFF YOU TOTAL, UTTER AND COMPLETE BASTARD. The station announcer advises passengers on platform 4 that all trains will be subject to delays. Yes, f***wit, we can see that. Two hundred livid wannabe passengers pick the Freightliner up and throw it over the Bowl, so the now-un-delayed 13:58 can depart at 14:02. All right, I made that bit up about throwing it over the Bowl. The Freightliner just started up again, all by itself, really, but I was using dramatic licence.
Much to my surprise, no further delays, and I arrived at the Junction at 14:48. (I wish to make it clear that I am not always this anal about train times, but today I made a note of the times as ammunition to use against Virgin when I get round to writing them a green ink letter to demand a refund and compensation.) No time to walk, get a taxi. I get the only taxi driver in Watford who wouldn't think of dropping off by the Hornets precinct. No, this one goes via Rickmansworth Road, sees the police at the bottom end of Harwoods Road, and drops me off there, on the corner of Whippendell Road. That must be at least ten minutes walk away. And yet I still tipped him. Why did I do that?
I arrived in time to hear "Z-Cars" as I walked down Occupation Road, but missed the kick-off, as I have to keep up match-day routine by using the Rookery-Rous corner turnstiles. Turnstile number 40 (4-0, geddit?) for the first time ever. Significant new obsession there, I think. Until it fails, like all the others. I approach my seat ranting about Britsh bastard bloody Rail and I am sympathetically greeted by Toddy and The Doc with "Sit Down, Shut Up". Thanks, guys.
Final whistle, game over, time to go home, decide not to go for a pint in the West Herts, better catch a train. Walk longingly past the Estcourt, but I don't give in to temptation there, either. Departure board at the Junction says I've got just enough time to grab a coffee and a bun before the next train, so I do that. And that begins one of those really spooky periods when everything goes right for a change.
At Milton Keynes, I ask the despatcher if I can use the ticket on any train. He says that, the way things are now, you get on anything that's going north and "don't worry about tickets cos we certainly won't". As he says that, a very delayed mid-afternoon train to Crewe pulls in. Many hours later, and after seeing the Northampton civic firework display en route, it arrives at Crewe. I find I have all of four minutes to wait before a train leaves for Colwyn Bay, my delight is undimmed even by the couple of dozen drunk United morons returning from Coventry - they really are a charmless, arrogant bunch of tossers.
Entertainment on this new train is provided by three extremely rat-arsed Forest fans. One of them stands on his table to sing, the train lurches and he falls over his mates, onto the couple opposite him, then slides gracelessly into an undignified heap on the floor, gets up, takes a bow, apologises profusely to the assembled company for swearing but he f***ing loves his team and they've won a match, then picks up his pint and pours it over his mate, who is slightly dischuffed by this. It's a new concept in the performing arts, called fear-comedy. You want to laugh, you really do, you think they look like three regular blokes, but there's that nagging doubt that if you make eye contact, one of those empty beer glasses will be making eye contact with you. The entire carriage feigns sleep until they leave at Chester.
One final twist to this too-good-to-be-true-in-the-circumstances journey. At Prestatyn the guard - no pretensions from this man - comes into the carriage to inform us that we'll be waiting here for a while as he and the driver have to get someone off the train. As I've seen an ambulance driving up the station approach, I regard this as something of an understatement, and spend the twenty minute delay musing on the irony that the fear-comedy act prevented the guard from venturing into my carriage, so he never got around to checking my invalid ticket, the coward.
I would have been disappointed if there had been a taxi at the rank in Colwyn Bay to run me the last mile home. No worries there, Sod's Law is fully-operational. No disappointment, and no taxi. Idle bastard taxi drivers, never one there when you need one. I refer to taxi drivers in general not taxi-driving readers of this article, of course. (I've had a bit of a week as far as taxis are concerned, too.) Never mind, I'll walk, it's only closing-time in the town centre, it's only minus five degrees, it's only quarter of an hour's walk. Don't worry about me. Bastards.