I avoided travelling while London Bridge was closed. It had been grim enough before with constant cancellations and delays. On the 5th of January, I went back to work and hoped for the best.
Monday the 5th
The morning run was OK. At London Bridge, my usual route through to the tube - through a tunnel lined with little shops, was closed off. This wasn't a real problem but I was surprised that I couldn't see signage telling me where to go. I just followed the crowd and hoped they were heading for the tube rather than the nearest coffee shop. A station employee seemed to be flapping their hands in the general direction of motion, so off I went. Down some stairs into the tube and into work.
The evening was a very different story. I came out of the tube with about 20 minutes to spare. Even in crowded conditions this is usually plenty of time to look at the shops and get my train. I was able to get to the main line station using my normal route, through the tunnel. I bought some posh chocolates and headed up into the station. This is where it all went wrong. Instead of being able to move freely into the concourse to see the platform announcements, I found myself in a rather genteel 'kettle'. Although, everyone was being patient, I could immediately sense how edgy everyone was. I soon realised why. Of approximately a dozen ticket gates, only 3 were set up in the right direction for the evening flow of commuters. The rush hour crowds were piling up behind me.
I started weaving my way through to the corner with the magic green crosses. An authoritative voice rang out asking that people make way for the guide dog. Everyone stepped aside and let the dog and its blind handler through. A few minutes later, I slipped my ticket into the slot and almost skipped through the barrier. 8 minutes to go. To my horror I found myself on the train side of the barriers away from the all-important platform information. I found myself next to one of the few station staff and asked him where I might find the Uckfield train. He had no more idea than me and apologetically waved at the individual boards by the buffers. All I could do was join the heaving throng struggling up and down looking for their train. I saw an East Grinstead train and immediately gave up on Uckfield. I just managed to squeeze in. I could still just hear announcements and strained my ears listening and waited. It sat in the platform for an age. Endless bloody meaningless apologies. I began to get twitchy, maybe I should have waited for the Uckfield train. Then I heard "Uckfield train cancelled".
Finally the scarily full train mooched out of the platform. It stopped and started a few times. I didn't even look out of the window at East Croydon. I'm told the platforms were overflowing. Then on through the suburbs to Oxted. Would the shuttle be running? A glance at the board says yes, which is fortunate because the platform is full with people who should have been on my train as well as the shuttle's regulars. Never has that shuttle been so welcomed or so full.
Tuesday the 6th
Things would surely be better on the second day back. Going in was slightly better. My usual route through the tunnel had been restored. During the afternoon I kept my eye on Twitter because forewarned is forearmed. My heart sank as sea of green Southern avatars announced hundreds of delays and cancellations @SonOfShaleman tweeted that the 18:08 train was likely to be only four carriages. Noooo!
Coming home was actually worse this time. This time an iron shutter fronted by a couple of staff barred the way into the tunnel. "This way?" I asked, pointing towards the Shard. They nodded. I followed the throng onto a narrow escalator and chatted to a lady as we went up. She said that she was seeing bits of the London Bridge area that she had never seen before. With a laugh "It's nice of them to give us free tours of the London Bridge experience." I grinned back, then followed the crowd.
This time it was worse because I came in right at the back of the station and found myself looking at thousands of heads. People trying to get to their platforms were impeded by those frantically scanning the boards. Would I be able to get through in time? Maybe the East Grinstead train would be the better option again. I inched my way through the crowds. It was getting close to the grinny's departure.
Through the barrier, more-or-less in the right place. I find the train just in time - but - I pass every door. Each carriage is full to the brim. Many of the people would be getting out at East Croydon to get the train they really want. I'm half way up when I hear the sound I have been dreading. The whistle blows and the doors close. Dozens, maybe over a hundred, are left bewildered on the platform. What now? There is a mass movement to the other side where the Bognor train is coming in. I join the bunches by doors. Might just as well get in and get out of this seething mass. I'm on. I strain to hear announcements. Another massive wait. Maybe the Uckfield train will turn up.
A Brighton train pulls up opposite. I eye it while half listening to the announcements on my train. "Non stop to .........." I'm outta here. I apologise dozens of times as I weave and shuffle to get out of the carriage. A quick trot across the platform and I slip into the comfortable seat of the Gatwick Express. Again, we are waiting, waiting. The woman sitting next to me checks the expected departure time on her phone. None is given. Will it be cancelled? I really don't want to get back into that boiling mass. She looks glumly into her phone and says 'It's not looking good." I'm not convinced the information means anything. Everything is so chaotic. Then the magic sound of a whistle and doors clunking shut. We are off. I am heading to Haywards Heath with the wrong ticket and the prospect of a big taxi fare and I don't care. I'm going home.