Saturday, 15 November 2014

St Albans, again

“Good morning everybody, this is James, and can I say how lovely it is to see you all. I’m so pleased that we’ve managed to get you here on time. I wish you all a pleasant day and look forward to seeing you this evening on your journey home.”

St Albans stopped being my home. Work, however, continued to take me there daily.

Every morning, and every evening, there would be James, the platform announcer.

“Good evening everybody, this is James, and can I say how lovely it is to see you all. I’m so sorry we’ve got you home two minutes late this evening. It jolly well matters. Rest assured I will not rest until I have found out why we have failed you this evening, because you really do matter. If you are boarding the train here, I wish you a pleasant onward journey, and I shall see you all, bright and early, in the morning.”

The following morning, there he would be.

“Good morning everybody, this is James, and can I say how lovely it is to see you all. I’m very sorry about the weather today. I have a few umbrellas here should you need one, they were going spare in lost property. I do hope that, despite the weather, you have a wonderful day.”

Day in day out, there would be James, standing among his people.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, as Shakespeare wrote: ‘One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”. As we await the 1750 to Bedford on this platform, we, too, are all connected. The train is only half a mile away, but the system is saying it is delayed by around 10 minutes. I’m ever so sorry.
I’m trying my hardest to understand why this might be, I don't like to keep you waiting.”

And with each message, more and more on the platform would smile, though his colleagues rolled their eyes. James, peering over his round frame glasses, swamped by his luminous First Capital Connect jacket and hidden beneath his train driver’s hat, would pore over the information screen, scrabbling for helpful information to share with those waiting to go home.

At last, the train arrived.

“Good evening everybody, this is James. I’m so sorry we’ve got you home ten minutes late this evening. I’m not sure what has happened, our systems promised they would get you here sooner. Please believe me when I say that this really does matter. If you can forgive us, I look forward to seeing you again tomorrow.”

And that he would. James, whose previous job as a butler had tasked him with anticipating all requests for help before they were made, strove daily to assist all passengers, and to do so with charm. A former alcoholic, he had found meaning in spreading politeness.

It was not long before he had an apprentice.

“Good evening everybody, this is Tom. Welcome to St Albans station. It is a pleasure to meet you all, and I hope you have a wonderful evening. Please do not hesitate to ask my colleagues or I should you need any assistance.”

And then the franchises changed. The carriages sported new logos, and the artwork around stations was replaced. Routes on the network changed. Giant businesses negotiated with government, and eye-watering numbers were circulated in trade press: 273 million passengers, government to pay £8.9 billion, expected returns of £12.4 billion. Despite the promises, of station improvements, of free wi-fi, of new trains, of better connections and of more seats, more services and greater capacity, trains were delayed on the very first day of franchise handover. On that very day in St Albans, as passengers finally arrived, frustrated, late and in need of a gentleman to welcome them and carry their troubles…

…James was not there.

Neither was he there in the evening, nor the next day, nor any day after that. I asked after him, and was told he had been moved on.

Journeys, no longer bookended by a doddery platform announcer whose declarations ensured a rickety train system could be, however fleetingly, forgiven for its failings, became a faceless routine. No longer was it bearable to squeeze on as the final sardine in a bumpy tin can. Trains were still late, but now an unemotive automated recording attempted to apologise instead. The tedious commute became, simply, a tedious commute.

One evening, I took a train in the other direction. Passing through the middle of London, bound for the airport, I chanced upon a familiar figure followed by a familiar voice.

“Good evening everybody, this is James, and can I say how lovely it is to see you all. Welcome to Farringdon station. I’m so pleased that we’ve got you here two minutes early this evening. I wish you all a wonderful evening, wherever you may be heading.”

Knowing that James is still out there, making passengers smile, the journey to St Albans is no longer a chore.


See also: The train dispatcher who defines what it means to be a gentleman