Intended – Richmond – Waterloo – Red Lion Square – Return
Actual – Richmond – Westminster – Victoria – Goodge Street – Kings Cross – Euston – Willesden Junction – Richmond
Well, dear Reader, I suggest fetching your beverage of choice and getting comfortable. I already know this is going to be a long one. You have been warned.
The Mayor of London – “Look guys, it’s post-Christmas. It’s dark, very cold and no one has any money. What are we going to do to brighten everyone’s lives a bit?”
Advisor – “I know, let’s hold a Festival of Light. We’ll commission a bunch of artists to decorate 30 London locations with light shows. We’ll make it free for everyone to come and look. It’ll be an amazing spectacle.”
Transport Planner – “What a brilliant idea. To make it perfect I’ll schedule lots of engineering work, and you know what else? You know that blogger who’s always pointing out how his journeys go wrong? If I’m careful I can really screw around with him.”
I challenge anyone to prove this actual conversation didn’t take place!
Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20 and looking back there were quite a few points where I should have taken the other fork in the decision road. To be honest I’m not at all sure how I stop myself making the same flawed choices in future.
I’d been planning on heading out to a Brook Comedy Benefit gig for a little while but it’s always hard finding the motivation when the nights are dark and the cold, cold days of post-Christmas January are upon us. Rather than listen to my inner Scrooge I decided it was in a good cause and would be a good night. Next time I may listen harder.
The first real alarm bell should have rung when I used TfL’s journey planner to plot the route. I’ve noted before that it’s important to apply a certain sanity filter to the results of any search, but this was beyond the pale. It happily recommended, in all seriousness, that I take the tube to Covent Garden and get off there. I assume it planned that I levitate the wheelchair up the escalator or stairs since the station definitely isn’t step free.
A little creative research and planning revealed a single bus going from Waterloo to almost my destination. Including the train into Waterloo, the total journey time seemed to be about 50 minutes. Not unreasonable at all. Comfortable that I knew what I was doing I carried on with the rest of my Saturday afternoon, blissfully unaware of the shambles that lay in my near future.
I’ve travelled often enough to be a pessimist so, with a 7.30pm start, I wrapped up like the Michelin Man at 5.30pm and set off towards the train. I don’t get on with the cold, I don’t like it, it doesn’t take much for bits of my body to simply stop functioning and tonight it was definitely joint-seizingly cold.
The second alarm bell rang immediately and very clearly when the bus arrived to take me to the station. The driver’s best efforts to coax and persuade the ramp out were for naught. Although he followed the procedures for trying, talking to me and communicating with control, the end result was just as fruitless, no ramp, no trip. Out of six journeys since the New Year this was my third ramp failure. I hope my average rises above 50% or 2016 is going to be pretty frustrating.
Thankfully this is a well serviced route and another bus arrived very quickly that I could get on. In actual fact we overtook the first bus en route so I arrived at the station sooner than I would have done. This made absolutely no difference to whether I caught my train to Waterloo because, amazingly, there were no trains to Waterloo. I do appreciate the need for engineering work, I really do, but to cancel ALL London-bound trains on a Saturday afternoon?
But I’m a hardened London traveller with an adaptive can-do approach to getting there, and at a station with pretty good links, so quick as a flash my mental sat nav recalculated the route and I jumped on the shiny new accessible S Stock underground train to Westminster. Sure it would take me longer, but I had the time to spare and I could connect to Waterloo on the Jubilee line and resume my original plan right?
Can you hear that faint ding dong? That’s the next alarm bell approaching.
I arrived at Westminster and wheeled off the train straight into a barrier blocking the way to the Jubilee Line and a sign announcing its closure for, yes, you guessed it, engineering work. From the amount of very British mumbling and tutting I wasn’t the only one for whom this was both unexpected and unfathomable. Of course, given my luck so far, the station wasn’t done with me yet. The lift, which has been out of service for maintenance for the last six months and only returned to service in the last fortnight, and was my route off the east bound platform, was broken. The sign helpfully informed me that the reason was unknown but was ‘under investigation’.
I found one of the sometimes helpful and occasionally essential assistance points and pressed the buzzer. Unfortunately it’s quite difficult to hear and be heard with underground trains thundering in and out of the station behind you (not to mention my virtual alarm bell which by now is ringing consistently and persistently.)
Eventually a Day-Glo clad angel arrived to rescue me and escort me to the backup lift. To his credit he seemed just as bemused and frustrated as me about the lift failure and engineering work, but he did assure me that there was a replacement bus service outside the main entrance which would get me to Waterloo. If it existed, of it I could find no trace. In fact when I ventured back into the station to ask another staff member the “replacement bus service” miraculously transformed in front of my very eyes to “a bus”, but this was only after they helpfully suggested, with a straight face, that I go over to Embankment station. They did at least have the decency to look sheepish when I pointed out that Embankment was in no way step free.
No matter. I knew, from experience, that the 211 bus was what I needed and that the stop was right outside the main entrance. Sure enough the stop was there. So was a cover which read “Bus stop temporarily closed”. There also seemed to be rather a large number of people around for rush hour on a weekday, let alone early evening on a Saturday. It was about this time that the alarm bell became like tinnitus and I began to unconsciously block it out.
Again I set my mental sat nav to recalculate and set off towards Victoria, the route I knew the 211 came from, to find an operating bus stop. As I made my way round Parliament Square the crowds got thicker and thicker. When I reached Westminster Abbey my memory was jogged by an almost psychedelic vision of light painting the statues in so much detail they appeared to have expressions on their faces. Now I understood what the advertised London Lumière Festival was about. Undoubtedly beautiful as this was, the full horror of the impact on my future progress still didn’t permeate my consciousness as I fought my way over the incredibly painful cobbles and through the crowds.
Progress seemed painstakingly slow but I eventually reached a suitable, and open, bus stop. Depressingly a check of the live bus information via the text message service (why is there never a live status board when you need one?) showed no sign of any 211 buses due. Faced with the prospect of freezing whilst waiting for a bus, which given my luck may never appear, I briefly considered giving up and heading home, but no. I had come this far, I still had 40 minutes to spare and by again altering my route I could be at the theatre in 30 minutes. I resolved to persevere and caught the next bus which was heading towards Tottenham Court Road, or at least it said it was. In reality it spent the next 10 minutes stationary, stuck in gridlocked traffic in Parliament Square.
When we did finally get moving any spare time I may have had was gone so the next delay just before Trafalgar Square meant that I was going to be late. It was shortly after this, as progress continued at a snail’s pace that I finally accepted the inevitable, that I wasn’t going to make the gig and that I needed to abort and head home.
Of course this was easier said than done. I was heading at the speed of a formula one glacier in the wrong direction. The answer was obvious. Get off the bus at the next stop and turn around. The next stop was Trafalgar Square itself, and it became clear when we arrived why progress was so slow. There were so many people that there wasn’t space on the pavement for them and they were spilling out into the road making the traffic choose between stopping or killing someone. Unusually for London drivers they were choosing to stop. Even if the driver could have deployed the ramp onto the pavement, I wouldn’t have been able to move safely so I decided my only option was to remain on the bus until we emerged out the other side.
Another very tedious and slow 20 minutes passed as we moved up past Leicester Square which was equally heaving. I’m sure the mechanics at the bus garages must have been working overtime on Sunday replacing all the worn out horns. I have to say whoever specified the horns on London buses needs shooting. They really should toot loudly and with pride “I’m a London bus and I’m coming through. Get out of my way!” In actual fact they seem to be the vehicle equivalent of Sergeant Wilson’s “*cough* Excuse me, would you mind awfully if I squeezed past. Terribly sorry to inconvenience you.”
I used the time constructively to do another route recalculation. Rather than turn round and plough back through the masses I decided to press on to Kings Cross where the tube would take me back to Hammersmith. I left the bus at Goodge Street and boarded the next one to Kings Cross. Entertainment for the trip, as we passed through Euston, was provided by the radio of the Police PCSO who stood next to me. The broadcast provided an insight into the rich tapestry of human existence on a London Saturday night, of open windows, or missed medications for mental health conditions and most significantly the challenges of controlling a sprawling crowd of thousands that had almost become a single living entity.
I left the bus at St Pancras, the entrance closest to where I needed to be and was immediately confronted by two things. Firstly, and not surprisingly people. It turns out that Kings Cross was the site of another one of the exhibits, and thus was drawing in people like a magnet. The second thing that faced me was a locked gate and the station evacuation alarm sounding. Clearly this wasn’t going to be an option, and unlike all the other non-disabled people who’d been locked out I couldn’t just go to the next station. The nearest accessible station is Green Park, the other side of the Lumière melee. The sensible thing for TfL to do would of course have been to put staff and signs at entrances to provide information, advice and situation updates, so of course they did none of this. The only visible staff member was inside on the concourse and was staying well away from the locked entrance.
Once again facing an insurmountable obstacle I had no option but to head back to Euston. Unfortunately, it seemed that everyone else locked out of Kings Cross had the same idea and I became just one cell in the body of this new creature. Of course, being lower than everyone else and surrounded on all sides, my vision was limited to the pair of legs in front of me. Regularly someone would try to cut in front of me, then look surprised when my footplates made solid and obviously painful contact with their ankles. Anyone who knows the pavement between Euston and Kings Cross, especially disabled people, will be aware that it is fairly uneven, full of street furniture and trees, and of variable width. This meant my progress was best described as erratic and resulted in further injury to other cells in the crowd-beast. I’d like to say I’m sorry, but to be honest I was much more concerned with making progress without falling off unexpected kerbs or running into things that would really do me or the chair serious damage.
Of course the flow of people that engulfed me was matched by a flow going in the opposite direction heading towards the lights and the now closed station. This meant that regularly the legs that I was following would step sideways and some poor unfortunate would have to stop sharply to prevent themselves from ending up sitting on my lap. More than once I’m sure this lead to the people equivalent of the motorway nose-to-tail fender bender.
I eventually reached Euston with my blood pressure somewhat higher than when I started but otherwise unscathed. I’m pleased to be able to say that this was also the end of the chaos. By heading out of the city, albeit in entirely the wrong direction, I was able to leave the uncertainty behind me. There was a brief wobble at Willesden Junction after some poor soul tried to throw themselves in front of the train, but fortunately she was intercepted by alert staff and help for her was summoned.
I got back home four and a half hours after first leaving having achieved almost entirely nothing. The festival was clearly popular and a good idea but had completely ruined my night. A victim of its own success, I’m sure a post mortem will be held and lessons learned, but I’m equally clear that the impact on disabled people like me will not factor into those enquiries and that there will continue to be a lack of appreciation that when transport goes wrong it’s not possible, as a disabled person, to just simply switch your route and try plan b.