A Christmas Eve I’ll Never ForgetPosted on December 12, 2013
My plans were to go to Spain this Christmas, spend time with friends in Valencia, walk on the beach, eat some paella, and have some general down time. But whether it’s karmic payback for telling my snowed-in friend back home about the balmy weather I’d be enjoying or simply wrong place, wrong time, Spain was not to be.
On the 23rd, I heard that storms were disrupting rail service everywhere. There were mighty winds, fallen trees, and so on. There was some flooding, and a lot of power outages. The advice for the 24th was that while trains were running normally, get to the train station early, in case of disruptions. So to be safe, I went to the station at 6:45 to catch the 7:19 (instead of the 8:19) train, to be sure I would make my connection in Leicester. The 7:19 arrived at 7:55, but it still left me enough time to get the connection as if I were taking the 8:19 train. So far so good. Got the train down to St. Pancras station, and that’s when things started to fall apart.
The express train from St. Pancras to Gatwick wasn’t running, so I had to take the tube to Victoria and transfer to the train. But it wasn’t running there, either, because of a fire at East Croydon. So I, and about a thousand other people, made my way to the bus terminal. Evidently, there were so many people ahead of me that I wouldn’t have been able to get onto a bus until much later in the afternoon. My flight had been delayed from 2:15 to 3 PM, and then to 4 PM, so I still had time, but not that much time. I was advised to take a taxi if I wanted to make it on time. So … 130 GBP later, I arrived at the airport with the requisite 2 hours to spare. On the way, in the taxi, I got a notice that my flight had been pushed back to 5 PM, and then to 6 PM. I decided to do an internet search and discovered that Gatwick’s North Terminal had been flooded, which then caused a power outage, and that disrupted operations in many ways (from regulatory runway lighting to manual baggage processing and more). So North Terminal flights were now going out of the South Terminal. Of some 53 flights that were supposed to leave by 9 AM, under 10 had actually left. By the end of the day, there were thousands of passengers simply stranded. Most of them were quite stoic about things, but some were in tears and others were quite angry. For a picture of what the airport looked like when I got there, see this BBC news item:
So then, having gotten to the airport by 2:30 PM, I was valiantly trying to drop off my checked bag (but it turns out that the bag hadn’t been checked, which was another hassle and line-up), and then I discovered that my flight had been cancelled altogether. On my smart phone, I checked what my options were: to transfer to another flight (which would leave in two days’ time) or to get a refund. I chose the refund, and then went down to try to get a train back. Except now, in addition to the fire disruption, there had been a landslide. So no trains were running, and the railway was so disorganized that they were reduced to three guys in flourescent orange coats milling about. One, with an accent so thick as to be barely understandable, was standing on a ledge, shouting out updates to the crowd. (No megaphone, either.) Every so often, they would yell out that people going to Bristol should go to Platform 3, and then point to an area beyond the throngs of people waiting, and passengers would try to push through with their suitcases. Complete chaos. After a couple of hours of standing around (thank God my hip can now take that type of punishment), they announced that replacement buses were arriving. Then they changed that to say that we would be put on Bristol-direction trains, where we would get off at the first stop, then transfer to buses, which would take us around the inoperable tracks, to another train stop, where we would get on and head to London. I was so frustrated that I was letting off steam by tweeting my impression of the incompetency going on around me, at least until my phone ran out of battery.
It was after 6 PM before we started our descent to the train platform (bumping a suitcase and backpack down a full flight of stairs). The first train leg was fine, and then we got off and walked to the exit of the station to find wall-to-wall people in front of us, waiting for buses. It probably took close to an hour to get onto the buses, and it started to rain about the time we made our way to the front of the line, outside of the station. These folks were more organized, though, and managed to pack the buses like sardines. People with no luggage were sent upstairs to sit, and those of us with luggage were organized as compactly as possible. And off we went, holding our suitcases on our laps so the aisles were available for standing-room passengers, to the next train station.
I got on the train, and got a seat, and found somewhere to charge my phone. I had been told that I would probably not make it home because after getting to London, I still would have to take a train north to Leicester, and then transfer to the East Midlands line east to Oakham. And the trains were stopping early because of Christmas. I was a bit frantic, and was searching out routes to get me home, when I got a private message through Twitter from a fellow that I know through the content strategy community and conference circuit. He said that if I were stuck, he and his family would take me in. A quick phone established that, indeed, I would not make it home, and that my best bet would be to get off the train at Clapham Junction and take another train to Richmond Station, where he would pick me up.
By the time I got to their home, I had been on the road for almost 15 hours. While I stayed calm during the day, the stress took its course. They gave me a cup of tea, fed me, and then let me sleep. I am ever grateful for this incredibly kind gesture, and their generous hospitality.