Posted by: Corri van de Stege | August 8, 2007

Another train journey – reflections whilst travelling

On the theme of travelling and reading books about travelling, closer to home, train journeys can be tedious but also provide a source of inspiration.  Today was another such day.  I’d caught a mid-day train back from London, after a very early meeting which had necessitated an overnight stay,  and I was therefore quite optimistic that I would get back home by mid afternoon, still be able to do some catching up on e-mails and some papers before retreating into the personal and non-work part of my room to do some more reading and writing. 

No such luck.  The train, full of holiday makers, suitcases, rucksacks, grannies and grand children, parents and chatty lively kids, but very few ‘business travellers’ at that time of the day, suddenly stopped, halfway between London and Cambridge.  And it stood.  And it just did not move.  Nothing.  No announcement.  But then you never get an announcement very urgently as we all know, experienced rail travellers in England, so that was nothing new.  And then, after some 25 minutes the clearly desperate driver asked if there was any train personnel on board and would they please come to the driver’s cabin.  For the passengers he had the information that there was ‘a very large sheet of polythene on the rails and the overhead, obstructing the train’ and until this was removed he obviously could not continue.  So we stood some more. 

Kids became noisier. Behind me two very elderly American couples commented on what was happening and wondered why had they chosen this day to go to Cambridge and they wished they had had something to eat before leaving and that the door would close just as they arrived ‘probably at six’, which made me think they were on their way to a gallery or museum.  One of the husbands said he should perhaps get up and give a sermon, so he was probably a clergyman, and they were two couples on a tour of England, only they had chosen the wrong day to go to Cambridge.  They were very cheerful though and laughed and shrugged it all of in good humour.
Then there was the couple, with a really huge suitcase blocking the gangway who both fell asleep until he started snoring quite audibly and she woke up with a shock, nudging him, and he was all cranky and asked why the hell couldn’t she let him sleep. She whispered ‘well, others might not like to sit listening to your snoring..’.  He did not buy that and closed his eyes again and snored a bit more.  Three younger travellers also slumped across each other and fell asleep after having nudged and joked about for a bit, their bottles of orangeade empty and desolate.

After another half an hour or so an announcement that it might take at least a further hour before we’d get moving again, and meanwhile the electricity would be switched off as the train only had power to stand still for three quarters of an hour and if the driver did not do something about saving power we might all be sitting there until late tonight.  Shudders throughout the compartments. 

It was lovely outside, a summery cloudy sky, with enough sunshine coming through to make it all look like a nice day, except that there were only fields and a road in the far distance, no chance we’d be picked up by anything easily.   Ominously, someone with a green vest came by counting all the people on the train, I never found out why that was done.  Did they expect they might have to frogmarch us off into the sunset at the end of the fields?  Where they afraid they might lose us, someone falling through the closed doors?  Or where they going to order food and water,  delivered by a tractor coming at us through the fields?  But then none of that ever arrived.

White helmets, orange vests and a ladder bobbed by the windows outside, some six or eight helmets in total, moving to the front.  That gave hope, something was done. 

Two hours later, and a lot of unease with many more conversations and people falling asleep, the train started moving again.  Meanwhile the battery of my work phone had given up and as I had no laptop with me, after all I was only going up and down quickly for a meeting, I was relieved that I had stuck Samarkand in the outside pocket of my overnight bag.  This provided quite a different view of travel, the moving about amongst hostile and aggressive people and powers, which was probably a lot more hazardous than what I was experiencing in dull and predictable England. 

So far I have come across all kinds of excuses as to why trains cannot move, such as leaves on the rails, snow, flooding and many others, but this was the first ‘polythene sheet on the rails’, and hence worth noting!

Samarkand and its plots will have to wait for another time. 



  1. I see you were, after all, left unawares what happened with that polythene sheet. In the era of technology the logical solution to the problem should have come up in a snap of your fingers, but I’m afraid the fear of terrorism had something to add up to that problem.

  2. Not an unknown object, but rather a stream of live-stock once obstructed my train journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. The overnight train rattled to a halt about half way through and I was not aware of the incident until I stepped out of my private cabin to buy some snacks.

    I stayed up during the hour-long suspension and started reading Anthony Trollope, something I always bring on long journey.

  3. Jose: I suspect it was more to do with English obsession with ‘health and safety regulations’ rather than fear of terrorists… this is rural England and these are train drivers and personnel after all – am I in danger of defemation laws now? 🙂
    Matt: life stock sounds soooo much more interesting than a polythene sheet: I still wonder why someone did not just rip it off (10 minutes?)! again 🙂

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