So, to recap: Saturday evening, function string quartet gig in Wiltshire, on the edge of Salisbury Plain. Fairly well served by public transport, so rather than send a colleague out of their way to drop me somewhere, independent travel back. Bus to Andover, train to Basingstoke and another to Reading – all immaculately on schedule and trouble-free, even if I am a bit cold and very tired by this point.
Reading is about 25 minutes’ train ride from Oxford along the main line out of London. I arrive at midnight, to find without any prior warning that the train to Oxford I should be getting has been cancelled, and the only remaining departure to Oxford is ‘Bus’ at 00:36. There are no station staff still on duty to give any more detail or explanation, and so I settle in under a lamppost out the front of the station with my journey book to wait for half an hour.
A chance sanity check with a taxi driver redirecting departing passengers to a different taxi rank reveals rail replacement buses leave from the other side of the station – with 2 minutes to go. Bit of a jog with viola in hand gets me there before it leaves – but not before the rather small coach hired by the train company is full. That leaves a dozen of us still hanging around.
I’ve been in a comparable situation before and so I’m not too worried about getting home or spending horrific amounts of money – if it’s the train companies’ fault the ticket has not been honoured through to destination, then they are legally obliged to get the passenger there by some means.
So the count-up of numbers to destinations was fairly expected. However, unlike last time when we were put in black cabs from King’s Cross (yes, including me and one other to Oxford!), this time there is a priority contract with a phone taxi company. Evidently First Great Western have to send a lot of stranded passengers on from Reading.
Unfortunately the car park reveals another group about the same size of passengers from other cancelled trains engaged in the same activity. And the following period of waiting and confusion reveals that neither the station staff nor the taxi company have succeeded in properly coordinating and disentangling the needs of the entire body of stranded travellers. As a result, priority contract notwithstanding it takes over half an hour to get us actually into a cab.
The style of driving over the relatively short journey to Oxford train station would probably be best described as safe but not always legal. It is after all about half one in the morning by this point. By the time I’ve reached home, I’m almost exactly an hour later than the timetable said I would have been – not necessarily enough of a delay to justify massive annoyance, but of rather more consequence when it means I get to bed after a long (and, remember, working) day at past 2 a.m. rather than a little after 1.
Surprisingly many freelance musicians drive. Many need to carry substantial amounts of kit around; wedding / function gigs are often in the middle of nowhere; timings can be highly antisocial. It’s a sign of the individualism that has (regrettably, I believe) pervaded the industry that car-sharing is exceedingly rare and usually only considered if there are no other viable options.
Even if I could be bothered to do one of those intensive driving courses, get my licence before my provisional finally expires, and either hire cars when necessary or keep a vehicle of my own in the deliberately very car-unfriendly city of Oxford, I can’t afford to run a car, maintain insurance, etc. Absolutely impossible at my current income level. Public transport has to be my reliance.
Which makes it a right pain when not only does the system break down, but it does so spectacularly, failing to provide information, explanation or adequate contingency. Unfortunately, it does something close to this rather regularly; and the disincentive of paying all those taxi fares does not seem to be an adequate motivation of our privatised rail operating companies to up their game. (The failures of market competition in British railways at present would need at least another post, and one which I probably won’t write given how far away from music it would have taken me.)