The heavy black trains / A million engines in neutral

There were people having worse experiences than travelling by train last Wednesday as the storm first started to roll in, but it was still pretty much awful: I ended up better off than many fellow passengers, but even then essentially much of the network in England and Wales was falling apart around me.

I should have been going direct from Manchester to Oxford myself, but after delays from high winds and then power lines coming down, my train gave up in Birmingham. Here, literally hundreds of people were milling on the concourse. It was somewhat frightening, like the first scenes in a docudrama about the end of civilization. Perhaps it was: power out in Banbury; a fault north of Didcot; worst of all, Crewe lost its station roof, which promptly landed on power equipment and caught fire. I had only just escaped the effective shutdown of Manchester Piccadilly, only to end up almost trapped in Birmingham.

With south and south-east (via London then Didcot) both cut off, I tried south-west instead, zigging to Worcester only to find all trains zagging back towards Oxford – cancelled: the required rolling stock was on the other side of Didcot’s impasse. It was at this point that a kindly station officer bundled me into a taxi, which rocked ominously in the crosswinds all the way home: but after the sheer paucity of staffing and information at Birmingham, the first time I had felt actively cared for by the network came as something of a shock.

Later, from the comfort of my living room, I was going to tweet something pithy like:

We used to have options for mitigating #climatechange, but we seem to have privatized them all into the ground.

and indeed there’s a lot of truth in that. But in the end I just didn’t have the heart: I realised that I personally had had lots of other options, thanks to the good will and generosity of people that I was communicating with – via K, as my mobile was low on battery – on Twitter. Indeed, it was a suggestion from someone on the Twitters that ultimately got me home: my getting as far as Worcester forced the network’s hand; being the only one on the platform at that point (unlike at Birmingham) granted me preferential treatment.

Social networks are no substitute for strong, publicly-run services. They’re not available to everyone, to the same extent, and that can exclude and disadvantage: the information-poor; the un(der)connected; people who just aren’t at home making acquaintances or using technology. But for me, that network was there. And maybe that willingness to help out, writ large, can become a force of will to create something bigger than just a social network; like, for example, a strong and enabling state.

Either way: thanks, everyone, for getting me home. The cat had started to get worried.

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