Saturday, June 30, 2012

My 18-Hour Journey from France to Edinburgh

Last week I was in the South of France. It was beautiful and might warrant its own blog post, but as I am notably lazy when it comes to posting, and as this is a more interesting story, I am now going to tell you about my return journey to Edinburgh.

The story starts the morning of our check-out from our accommodations. It was a Friday morning, and we had to be out by 10am. Check-out went off without a hitch, but our transfer to the airport wasn't due to arrive until noon. Thus begins the Purgatory of a day I had. Every aspect of my journey involved getting to a place and then waiting. And waiting. And waiting. As if I needed the prayers of the living to help me move up the mountain (I've been reading a lot of Dante lately).

So we wait two hours at a cafe until our airport transfer comes to get us and arrive at the Beziers airport at around 12:30pm. Our flight is scheduled to leave at 4:30. So more waiting in an airport cafe that is run by a woman who clearly hates her job. We finally get on the plane and land at the Manchester airport at around 5:50pm British Summer Time. It is important at this point to note that it is raining in Manchester when we land, but we make it safely to the ground, and head over to the train station for our 7pm train to Glasgow.

Yes, you read that right. We don't have train tickets to Edinburgh because there was not a direct train that evening. There was one that took 10 hours (with connections), but since the train from Manchester to Edinburgh should take ~3 1/2 hours, we decided to reject that 10-hour trip on principle. So instead, we have tickets for a 3-hour trip to Glasgow. Once in Glasgow, two of my friends planned to stay the night at a hostel, while another friend and I would take the 50-minute train ride home, which would put us in Edinburgh between 11 and midnight. It was a solid plan. It really was. Until British weather intervened.

Our train from Manchester arrives late to the station, due to the rain we experienced upon landing. When the train finally arrives, we board, settle in, and then begin to hear announcements that our train is delayed. After about fifteen minutes, they begin telling people bound for certain stations to get off and go to other trains. Finally, they announce that our train is cancelled due to flooding along the line and that everyone onboard should take the train from Platform 4 to Manchester Piccadilly, from whence we will be able to catch trains to other destinations.

Upon arrival at Manchester Piccadilly, I set out on a mission to find a ticket agent and figure out how to get to Glasgow. We find a nice man who informs us that we need to take a train to Warrington Bank Quay, then change trains for Preston, and then from Preston we will be able to get to Glasgow. He also assures us that the tickets we already have will allow us to complete this journey. This plan seems like a solid one, except that the train we need to take doesn't leave Manchester Piccadilly until 8:50pm, so after our various connections, we likely won't arrive in Glasgow until after the last train to Edinburgh leaves. This hiccup is not a major one; it just means that Cailey and I won't be getting home tonight and will, instead, be joining our compatriots in the Glaswegian hostel. That's fine. It's fine. I just want to get to Glasgow.

Hokay. So. By 9pm, we've left Manchester Piccadilly and are on our way to WBQ. We arrive around 9:30 and frantically look around for the train to Preston, not wanting to miss our connection. Well, no worries there: the train to Preston doesn't leave until 10:23pm. I remember this time specifically because from here on out, time becomes very important to me. We make our way to the platform, and Sabrina and Kyley decide to find the restroom, while Cailey and I wait with the bags. At this point I'm a bit nervous about our various connections, so I look at the train schedules online to see how long it takes to get to Preston. According to the internet, the 10:23pm train arrives in Preston at 10:53pm. Ok, not bad. Then I look at the trains going from Preston to Glasgow. It is now 9:38pm. The next part of this story is best told from the perspective of Cailey, in video form.

So the last train to Glasgow is no longer an option, and the next train scheduled to leave Preston for Glasgow doesn't do so until 6:30am. It has now been confirmed that not only will we not be getting home tonight, we will also not be sleeping in the hostel waiting for us in Glasgow. This would generally be the point at which my travel anxiety switches to panic mode, but I manage to keep my cool and, on Cailey's suggestion, look for trains from Preston to Edinburgh. I find a train that claims to leave Preston at 12:52am and arrive in Edinburgh at 6:24am. Despite the fact that the trip is way longer than it should be, we decide it's a better option than waiting all night in Preston and then going to Glasgow. This means we will have to buy new train tickets from Preston to Edinburgh, but we're willing to do it if it means we don't have to spend the night in some random city in England. Another great plan, I'd say, but the story does not end with a happy train ride from Preston to Edinburgh. Oh no.

When we get to Preston, we head to the ticket counter, which is closed. But the self-service kiosk is open, so we look for tickets to Edinburgh. We start to buy a one-way off-peak ticket for £34, but at the last moment we realize that the ticket is only valid on weekdays, and as our train leaves after midnight on Saturday, we're not sure if that will work. So then we look at peak-time tickets, but they're around £60, which seems excessive. Since we still have over an hour to kill in Preston, we decide to wait until after midnight to buy our tickets, in the hopes that the prices change or we find an employee of the railroad to help us. It is then that I start looking at the train schedules posted around the station and realize that the 12:52am train to Edinburgh is actually a 12:52am train to Stirling, followed by a second train (with a separate ticket) to Edinburgh. So now we realize that we don't need to buy a ticket from Preston to Edinburgh at all, and we head back to the kiosk to purchase our tickets to Stirling.

On the way there we finally spot someone who looks official, so we walk up to her and say, "We're trying to get to Edinburgh. Can you help us?"

She replies, "Where are you coming from?"

I take a deep breath and then say, "Well. We started at the Manchester Airport."

She interrupts. "That's all I need to know." She then writes "Manchester" on a piece of paper that carries a list of cities. Seeing all these cities written down, I finally look around the lobby of this train station and realize that everyone in it is waiting around, occasionally glancing at this woman.

Apparently, we are all refugees from these floods that have cancelled our trains, and every one of us has been rerouted to Preston. The woman tells us that there are trains stranded in the middle of nowhere and that she is working on getting us to Edinburgh; we just have to wait. Grateful that we are not stranded on a train somewhere (and that she didn't ask to see our tickets, which clearly say we have paid to go to Glasgow), we sit down in the train station lobby to wait. After some time, she returns to tell us that a man will soon be calling us, so "get ready." Calling us to do what, you ask? Yeah, we're asking ourselves the same question. I think maybe we're going to take a bus to another train station. We head outside and the aforementioned man calls out "Edinburgh!" We rush forward, at which point this stranger points us toward a cab, which we enter, having zero idea what is going on. It becomes quickly apparent that we are now being driven ~180 miles from Preston to Edinburgh, which is great, except that we're not sure if we're expected to pay for it, and we're all too scared to ask the man who literally has our lives in his hands behind the wheel of this taxi.

About half an hour into the 3 1/2-hour drive, Kyley manages to start a conversation with him that results in him explaining that whenever there is an accident or major cancellation on the line, all the trains get routed to Preston, and then Preston's giant taxi corps, which has a contract with the railroad, is mobilized to get people wherever in the UK they need to go. So the £60 train ride we were all prepared to take that evening is now a free cab ride, which will get us home at 3:30am, as opposed to 6:24. And even better, since the taxi driver doesn't know the postcode for Edinburgh Waverley train station (and neither do we), he just decides he'll drive us home, thereby saving us a 30-minute walk from the station.

We spend the next three hours with this guy, who is a delightful conversationalist and sings earnestly along to "Endless Love" and decide (over text message) that we will each pitch in £10 to tip him. Not just because he saved us lots of time and money but also because, after he drops us off at 3am, he has to turn right around and go back to Preston.

When we get home, I hand him the tip, to which he says, most endearingly, "Are you sure?" We are sure, taxi driver. We are sure. Please don't fall asleep on the way home.

And that is how it took 18 hours to get from the South of France to Edinburgh.

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