Cancelled — Coming to Terms With the Chaos of the British Train System

by Thom Brown

Our On the Edges of Europe” columnist returns home to Britain, where he’s faced with the infuriating experience of catching a train, inspiring him to dig into the reasons behind Britain’s railway chaos.

A cramped, chaotic swarm of travelers assembled beneath the iconic arched glass ceiling of Paddington Station. Chins were uniformly tilted upwards, eyes transfixed to something in the heavens. For a moment, I wondered what treasures could lie above our heads, before clocking that their eyes didn’t reflect joy, but rather bitter resignation. They were looking at the train boards. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

Cancelled.

Cancelled.

Cancelled.

“Welcome home,” I whispered to myself.

At times, Paddington Station felt like the center of the universe, a hub that connected travelers to the whole of Britain and beyond. It was the starting point for leaving the capital and discovering a different UK, from the Cotswold stone cottages to the misty Scottish Highlands. The platforms were a concentration of noise and energy, the crowds echoing the chugging of trains, combining into a disorienting, disorganized symphony. In limited doses, this atmosphere fueled train travelers with adrenaline, evoking a sense of action, movement, and the anticipation of a thousand imminent journeys.

However, on this particular day, the air felt dull and lifeless. Trains were few and far between, leaving platforms barren. Would-be passengers stood, hopelessly staring, disillusioned beyond the point of anger, arriving instead at apathy. After two months of traveling through Cape Verde, Portugal, Spain, Andorra, and France, it wasn’t until returning home that I encountered my final boss: the British railway system.

My journey was already complicated enough: London to Reading, Reading to Kingham to grab my stuff, Kingham to Didcot, and then Didcot to Bristol. But as soon as I saw the delays and cancellations, all bets were off. It was now every man for himself. In the deepest recesses of my brain, I had to pull out my knowledge of the British railway network and find a path to my destination. In these conditions, Off-Peak and Advanced Tickets mean nothing. You pick a train, jump on, and hope for the best.

Platform 9: A train bound for Reading sat invitingly at the other end of the station. Power walking, I was determined to board but unwilling to run in public. Nearing the carriages, the windows came into focus, gloomy faces squashed together, bodies tightening up in a desperate attempt not to brush up against a stranger. I looked down at my suitcase, which contained not just my worldly possessions, but a heavy inflatable kayak, too.

“No chance,” I sighed, internally.

In time, though, it became clear that every train was like this. I accepted my fate and found a new one bound for Reading. Apologetically, I hauled my 25kg kayak bag aboard, forcing fellow passengers to squeeze closer together, breathing in each other’s breath. The doors slid shut, with that infuriating beeping noise. We stood in silence, sweating heavily from a mixture of stress, panicked movement, and shared body heat.

“Welcome aboard this Great Western Railway service,” came the nasal announcement. “Unfortunately, due to the overcrowding on this train, we won’t be coming through with the trolley service. This is due to the train consisting of five carriages, rather than the usual nine. If the carriages do empty out later on the line, we will resume food and drinks service, but frankly, I don’t expect that to happen.”

A flurry of tuts and sighs rippled through the carriage. The scheduled departure time came and went. Some passengers chose to alight and try another option, but each person who left was quickly replaced.

“We do apologize for the delay,” came the frustrated monotone of the train announcer. “We are currently looking for our driver. As soon as they arrive, we will be on our way in no time.”

The tuts and sighs became louder, rising from annoyance to incredulity. The minutes passed, and we remained stationary in the station. A patchwork of British society shared a common helplessness, just waiting for the blow of the whistle and the satisfying chug of the wheels.

Somewhere at the other end of the carriage, a balding drunk man yelled, “Where’s the toilet then? Where are we? China?!” much to the confusion of bystanders. An Italian woman called a work colleague to say she’d be late. Two young women embraced each other near the door, one gently reassuring the other that they’d be home soon. They each wore a lanyard with the words “I’m autistic” written on it. Their anxiety must have been understandably off the charts in this noisy, crowded environment, where there was barely room for movement, let alone escape. There was a palpable lack of control.

A young woman on the platform poked her head in the door.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said to me, with a heavy rhoticity indicating a West Country accent. “My train’s been cancelled. Do you know if I can get this one? I don’t know if my ticket is valid!”

“Just jump on,” I reassured her. “Most of us on here didn’t book this train. It’s not your fault it was cancelled, and I don’t think they’re even checking tickets.”

She somehow squeezed herself into a previously non-existent space, and the doors, once again, beeped loudly and slid shut. A few more minutes passed, waiting for a driver to emerge and the locomotive engines to fire up. Then, without warning, a power cut. The entire carriage cut to black, and a few nervous sniggers broke out among the passengers.

“Ugh, effing bummer!” exclaimed the West Country lady to a ripple of laughter.

Brits are admirably happy to complain about the state of their country. From the dismantling of the Empire to the aftermath of Brexit, we’re well aware that life isn’t what it was. The railways are a perfect representation of the sense of frustration and dysfunction that permeates our green and pleasant land. With some time to kill, I decided to grab my phone and find out why our railways are in such a state.

The reasons are complicated and multifaceted, but there was one theory that piqued my curiosity. Much of Europe was flattened during World War II, its infrastructure battered beyond recognition. This meant that countries were rebuilt throughout the 1950s, and many didn’t gain full control over their affairs until the 1990s. This means that railway systems across Europe are modern and resilient.

Britain had the good fortune of avoiding much of the devastation that occurred on the continent. Railways weren’t destroyed to the same extent, and there wasn’t such a need for rebuilding and regeneration. Therefore, the tracks I navigated that day were largely built as early as the late 1800s. These were Victorian railways trying to cope with 21st-century demands. No wonder they’re harder to maintain.

With this new knowledge, I felt comforted in the face of chaos. It was consoling to think that this lack of organization and efficiency was, at least in part, the legacy of being relatively unaffected by history’s deadliest conflict. Perhaps, it was even something to be grateful for. I reminisced about my struggles to navigate through countries like Ghana and Mongolia, where infrastructure has yet to come anywhere near the luxuries we have in the UK.

If traveling has taught me anything, it’s to let go of expectations. A traveler quickly learns to be fluid, adapting to whatever situation emerges. You don’t have to do everything to an exact schedule. It’s okay to get lost. In fact, it’s in these moments that real life gets lived. And it took coming home to realize this.

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