:: Buzzwords

3:AM in Lockdown 47: Stewart Home

What a Way to Run a Railroad
By Stewart Home.

Stewart Home in his face mask just before he boarded a train to return to London from north east Scotland on 16 March 2020


Although lockdown in the UK officially began at 10pm on 23 March 2020, for me it started a month before. I was supposed to be giving some lectures in Hong Kong but they were postponed until 2021 due to the coronavirus outbreak in China. So although my ticket was booked, in the end I didn’t fly to Chek Lap Kok International Airport on 23 February or return from there to Heathrow in the middle of March. Moving on, I first fully experienced the hyperreal strangeness of our world turned right side up (1) 11 days before those who aren’t key workers in the UK were ordered to stay at home.

When my upcoming Hong Kong trip was cancelled at the beginning of February, I decided to take a weekend break out of London and booked a ticket on the 10am LNER train service from London Kings X to Aberdeen for 12 March. By mid-March the UK authorities were still way behind the curve in dealing with the Covid 19 outbreak and I was looking to the World Health Organization and other medical sources for advice since I wasn’t going to trust Boris The Bungler to provide sensible guidance — the UK prime minister told us to ‘take it on the chin’. Later, few were surprised that a half-witted Old Etonian who was unable to heed the pandemic advice of the government he was heading ended up in an intensive care unit (2). By the time I was due to leave London, if I’d been able to cancel my extended weekend break in north east Scotland without losing the price of my train ticket, I’d have done so. LNER only made free cancellation an option a few hours after the service I’d booked myself onto departed Kings X.

Due to the pandemic I was wearing a medical grade face mask on the Aberdeen train. When I stood up around York to stretch my legs, I did so at my seat because — in line with medical advice on the matter — I wanted to minimise my movement within the carriage in order to maximise my social distancing in this confined space. However I was asked to sit down by an LNER employee who claimed I was alarming other passengers. I did as requested but soon afterwards spoke to the guard and explained I don’t like to sit for hours at a time. He said I could stand in the vestibule when I wanted to stretch my legs.

At Newcastle two men got on the train and walked through the carriage I was in. They gave me the once over before moving on to the nearest vestibule from where they stared at me. These ‘amateur cops’ ineffectually attempted to duck out of my line of sight when I turned to observe their reckless eyeballing. Since I wanted to stand up and because I found the behaviour of the men who were scrutinising me suspicious, I went to the vestibule. After watching me as I watched them for another five minutes or so, one of the eyeballers suggested to the other that they move on to the next carriage. Shortly afterwards they came back and showed me their British Transport Police ID and asked me why I was dressed as I was. It hardly needed stating that I was wearing personal protective equipment because there was a pandemic. Despite this the ‘undercover’ British transport cops came much closer to me than medical advice suggested was wise. All the way through lockdown I’ve noticed the police setting a poor example to everyone else by failing to observe the social distancing they often set about enforcing with an unnecessarily heavy hand.

By the time I returned to London on 16 March the British authorities were taking Covid 19 more seriously than four days before but despite this, I only spotted one other passenger wearing a face mask on the train I travelled on, a woman who joined it at Montrose. I also had to put up with some plank coughing in my face to wind me up, as they didn’t like the fact I was wearing a mask. On 16 March my ‘service’ provider LNER repeatedly made in-carriage announcements claiming they were cleaning their trains and ticket machines more frequently in response to the pandemic. Nonetheless the tray at the seat I’d booked was filthy. Fortunately I’d brought a sanitising spray and kitchen roll with me so I was able to clean it. I was only using the tray to put my copy of John King’s Slaughterhouse Prayer on when I wanted a break from reading. Once I’d finished John’s book, I took a copy of Bridget Penney’s new novel Licorice from my bag to peruse. I didn’t eat or drink on either of my LNER journeys since I didn’t want to remove my face mask. On my return trip LNER were still selling ‘refreshments’ to travellers despite the obvious health risks involved in flogging over-priced drinks and junk food to be consumed in a crowded and confined space during a pandemic.

The last guard on my service as we were approaching London — like those before him — made announcements about pandemic protocols and told people to wash their hands. However he twice added that passengers should call 111 for more information about the virus. Government advice was to go online for information and only call 111 as a last resort. I later emailed LNER pointing out they’d failed to brief staff effectively on this issue and raising a number of other matters that pointed to management failures on the company’s part, including having cops board one of their trains to observe me and then grill me about why I was wearing PPE during a pandemic. To date the only reply I’ve had is a generic one sent on 26 March saying: “Please accept our apologies if we were not able to respond to your request in time, but we have experienced unprecedented numbers of customers contacting us as a result of Coronavirus, however, please be assured that all feedback and complaints will be reviewed as normal…”. Since I’ve heard nothing more, I can only assume “as normal” means after the current crisis is over and well after the issues I raised should have been dealt with.

All of which brings to mind the phrase what a way to run a railway AKA managerial incompetence. The incompetence that most immediately concerns me extends beyond the government owned LNER train service to the way those in power in the UK have mishandled the current pandemic at the cost of thousands of lives. Boris Johnson’s government didn’t take pandemic planning seriously and missed multiple opportunities to halt the spread of infections and procure PPE for health staff.

A coda. It was in 2017 that LNER took over the east coast route I travelled on recently. This was after the previous operator Virgin Trains opted out of running the service well before their contract expired in order to avoid paying more than £2 billion in franchise premiums. Many thought Virgin should have been made to cough up anyway, but their friends in government decided otherwise. Public reaction to the Virgin boss and tax exile “Sir” Richard Branson pleading for a government bailout to save his commercial airline during the current crisis has been frosty, with thousands signing a petition asking for him to be stripped of his knighthood.

(1) Capitalism is insane and many lockdown measures — particularly a massive reduction in the number of motor cars on city streets — put the world back onto a more correct footing.

(2) When Johnson belatedly announced a lockdown he proved incapable of speaking with any gravitas at all and came across as if he wanted to audition for a remake of the Upper Class Twit of the Year sketch from the 12th episode of the first series of the popular BBC TV comedy show Monty Python (1970). Alexander “Boris” de Pfeffel Johnson would be perfect as either Simon Zinc-Trumpet-Harris or Oliver St. John-Mollusc, both of whom are described within the sketch as being — like the UK’s current (part-time) Prime Minister—- Old Etonians.


First posted: Thursday, April 30th, 2020.

Comments are closed.