My knees were at their worst over Christmas 2014. They are better now, but then, walking up and down stairs was very painful. At the time, I was having to navigate two flights of stairs twice a day as I changed trains at Clapham Junction. Pain could be lessened by holding on to the bannisters but, during the rush hour, it was sometimes difficult to find space for a hand.
On a train home one evening it was standing-room only. A woman suggested that I go to the first-class section of the carriage – “At this time of day and on this particular route the seats there can be used at no extra cost.” I followed her and sat down. She had just started a six-month placement at Clapham Station where her brief was to review traveller ‘experience’ and to suggest ways to improve the public’s lot.
In keeping with her new role she asked if I had any suggestions. I told her about my knees, reminded her of the older person’s staircase adage – ‘Hold tight on a hand rail’ – and suggested she introduce more bannisters, particularly on the wider stairwells. She said she would do her best. Within two weeks several spanking new bannisters were in place; her best was clearly pretty good.
The experience at my home station of Richmond was very different. There, it took the staff over thirty months to respond to my request. Yes, dealing with my suggestion would be demanding and expensive, but the stakes were high: doing nothing would risk lives.
As an inveterate snooper, I often peer at the tracks to check for wildlife – in London, sightings of railway mice, or even rats, are everyday. It was not a rodent that caught my eye from the edge of Platform 2, but two, large metal fixings lying in the gravel. These coiled clips should have been on the sleepers holding a rail tightly in place. With the coils adrift there was nothing to stop the rail moving sideways and the lines splaying apart. If only two clips were displaced, splaying would be unlikely – if more were missing it could be very different. Within minutes I had counted a further three errant clips and seven sleepers (ties) that were so deeply cracked that those fixings that were in place would not be secure. This was serious – derailment was now a possibility and during rush hour this could be catastrophic.
My campaign started in January 2015. No letters were written, I simply drew the faulty section to the attention of train staff whenever the opportunity arose. Using various ‘landmarks’ along the platform – down pipes, cables, posters etc – I identified the eighteen metres of track where the failings were concentrated. Every so often I would review the state of the lines – nothing seemed to change – and then speak to any member of staff I could find, so platform assistants, platform supervisors and station managers. I took them to the designated stretch, pointed out the various deficiencies and repeated the risks – at worst derailment and mayhem. Finally I demanded that they, or their bosses, contact those responsible for track maintenance and ask that it be repaired. My presentations were usually met with polite disinterest, a lack of urgency (“There can’t be a problem, the lines are inspected once a week”) and some washing of hands (“This is not my responsibility”). One station manager did promise to report my complaint, but nothing materialised.
In August this year it was the ‘Flagship’ manager’s turn to hear me out. He had oversight over several stations in the area. He noted my concerns and then echoed the position of the Clapham ‘improvement’ officer; he would do his best.
Two months later, when I returned from a long trip abroad, I was greeted at the entrance to Platform 2 by three, smiling, uniformed officials who beckoned me over, amongst them was the Flagship manager. They told me how the faulty section had just been repaired. Soon we were all congratulating each other – it was time to celebrate.
I am a great fan of the railways. I love riding in trains, speeding to my destination free to read, write or doze or whatever. In keeping, I also have my favourite stations and amongst these is the one at Richmond. I particularly like its Art Deco facade with its giant, square-faced clock. I now realise that, as the campaign went on, I must have been feeling uneasy since, typical of me, the rich cream of the facade’s Portland Stone and the blue of the clock began to look jaded. Without my realising it the campaign was taking its toll. With the new track laid, the station entrance has returned to its normal splendour.