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1:47pm on Saturday, 2nd September, 2006:



I knew I was in trouble when the bus driver shouted, "Does anyone know this road?".

I went to London today, to speak to some very interesting and agreeable people at the BBC who are researching a programme on virtual worlds. It takes an hour to get from Colchester to London by train, plus or minutes 10 minutes depending on how many stops there are. Driving takes at least 2 hours and you get stung for a congestion charge, too. I haven't driven into London for maybe 10 years; unless I'm taking something too big to carry or I'm visiting somewhere far from an undergrounds station, I always take the train.

So, I left White City at 4pm, got into Liverpool Street at 4:35 and caught the 4:45 to Colchester. I set my phone to ring after 50 minutes, so I wouldn't miss my stop, and I tried to catch some sleep (fitful, due to the conversation between salesmen going on next to me, which was loud because it was in competition with yells an unruly child called Nathan).

At 5:30, we stopped. We hadn't been going fast anyway, but I was a littl surprised to learn we hadn't reached Shenfield yet. Shenfield is about 20 minutes from London by train. After waiting some 10 minutes or so, the driver announced that there was a points failure in the Chelmsford area. He'd take us into the next station (Brentwood) if he could, and open the doors to let us stretch our legs, but things were looking bad. They looked worse when he said that in addition to the points failure, overhead power lines were down.

Half an hour later, we moved on, slowly, past Brentwood and into Shenfield. There, the train was terminated. We all had to get off.

The driver wasn't all that happy about it, and neither was anyone else. He told us to wait for announcements, which naturally were not forthcoming. We stood (several hundred of us) at Shenfield waiting to be told what was going on. Apparently some people on another train had been advised by their driver that iif they wanted to get to Colchester, they should return to London, catch the Stansted Express to the airport, then the scheduled bus service from there. They'd get home earlier. Oh, and it wasn't just a points failure and downed power lines, there were signalling problems too,

I was getting something to eat (mars bar, sausage roll, 500ml bottle of water: £3.33) this when some chap in a train company uniform told someone next to me that there had been buses organised, and an announcement would follow shortly. That statement was as close to an announcement as we ever got, but it spread quickly and we descended to the front of Shenfield station to wait for the buses that were to replace the trains.

Maybe 45 minutes later, they arrived. We watched them progress slowly through the traffic, as did the British Transport Police officers who were wearing bright tabards so that we knew who they were — they were in plain clothes otherwise. Finally, the officers managed to get the traffice moving sufficiently to enable the buses to arrive, and we boarded.

The buses were going to Chelmsford, where we'd be moved onto a train again. Oh, and the points, signals and power line problems were accompanied by a broken rail.

So the driver set off. We passed a number of adjacent houses with dates on them (1896, 1897 and 1898, in random order), and then we reached the roundabout for the A12 that links Shenfield and Chelmsford (and Colchester).

The driver didn't go onto the A12, though. Instead, he went towards Ingatestone. It was at this point he asked if anyone knew the road, because he didn't. He went through three (3) red lights in the resulting zig-zag through Essex villages. At one point, when he found himself in Ingatestone, he shouted out that we were in Ingatestone so that people who wanted to get off there could do so. He seemed to want to give the impression that he was supposed to stop there, but no, he wasn't (because there were shuttle trains that could get to Ingatestone), so, unsurprisingly, no-one disembarked. We eventually rolled into Chelmsford just in time to give way at a roundabout to two other buses that had left some time after us (which we knew was the case because they were single-deckers, and the first two buses, one of which as ours, were double-deckers).

At Chelmsford, we waited for a train to arrive at the platform we were told to wait at, then all rushed to the platform it eventually came in at some 20 minutes later. It took us to Colchester, stopping at every station on the way. I got in at about 9:45.

I thought at first that I might just have been unlucky and that people leaving London later would have been able to continue on their trains, which is often the case. However, when I saw how full Colchester North Station car park was, I realised that actually I was fortunate to be home at all. This was confirmed this morning when I was listening to the 2-minute national news at 11am on Radio 4, which said people who wanted to use the railway in East Anglia should forget it until about 4pm this afternoon.

Oh well, at least it's not the kind of thing that happens very often. The last time there was a 3-hour delay on the line was, oh, two days earlier on Wednesday.

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).