Double seats, chance meetings and the spice of life

Have you ever talked to a stranger on a train? No, not the drunk individual who makes no sense but the person next to you. Here’s a short story of my afternoon.

Whilst rounding off the commuting part of the week I trudged wearily onto the typically fragrant Virgin Voyager to make my way back to Wolverhampton. It doesn’t take a furtive imagination to picture the scene: warm bodies crammed into the small space and only a few spare seats remaining. I spotted mine and the person occupying the neighbouring seat had spread a couple of bags and coat on it (some of you will at this point recall Ben Elton’s take on these matters). Now these moments can always be tense: you want the seat, you can tell the other occupant is reluctant to relinquish the double seat and an almost grudging acceptance by both parties that a silent compromise is the best way forward.  So it was today that I asked for the seat, the occupant looked up, offered the one she was in and requested the aisle seat. After sitting, she enquired if the train was heading out of the station the way we were sat facing and to her obvious disappointment it wasn’t.  I suggested that there is often space in the quiet carriage and offered to save the seat whilst she took a look (and yes I confess this was partly a selfish though in getting a double seat for my one stop journey.  Alas the train was full and, atypically for these sardine can trains you might think, the door wouldn’t open.  “Here we go” I did think at the time.

But this wasn’t the usual grudging cohabitation of confined rail space. A brief observation by my neighbour about how busy it was led to, initially, a few comments, and by the time we approached Wolverhampton a conversation I really was in danger of missing my stop for.  How two people who’s lives cross briefly can share so many small commonalities is one of life’s little wonders and a pleasure we rarely acknowledge in our rushed, closeted, atomised lives.  Yet here we were, two strangers talking about life, where we were in the grand scheme of things and learning to live it to the full.  In particular, our conversation turned to the topic of mental health – she is about to retrain as a counsellor, I told her about my recent health issues and we were able to share with enthusiasm some form of common past and experience.  So despite the delay to the train I left that particular journey feeling happy and feeling like I’d lived a little more than I otherwise would.  It was a useful reminder of the pleasant things life can offer if we are prepared to see and accept them.

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Playing the old waiting game

Though I feel I have made some significant inroads and progress over the last 18 months, there is one thing that still raises my stress levels is public transport. Yes I know, it’s a minor triviality for some and probably something I should loosen my grip on. Those who commute to work by car are likely to shrug and wonder why I do it. But those of you who use tube, bus or train to get to the daily grind will no doubt empathise in some way.

My notional commute for the 3 days a week at the “desk job” should be just over an hour. On a good day this can be under an hour which is pleasing, particularly on the way home. However, there are days like today when the public transport gods conspire to elongate the journey and with it raise my blood pressure. Having left the house at 7.05am I finally arrived at my desk at nigh on half eight. Arrrrgggggh! Even a full episode of 7 Day Sunday wasn’t enough today.  If this was the notional time then I could just about live with it. But it isn’t, it’s a daily lottery of bus arrivals and train connections. To be fair to the trains they aren’t the main culprit in this crime but can play an important role as accomplice. The prize for best aggrivator goes to National Express West Midlands. NXBus (as they like to call themselves) notionally operate public transport in Wolverhampton through their buses. If you live in (some areas of) Birmingham you might wonder what my gripe is when the buses are so new and the information on bus times so clear and up to date. Well, those of us in the wider conurbation have to make do with the hand-me down buses – old, unclean, unreliable and cramped – and a timetable which could winner the Booker Prize for fiction. There is no “real-time” information and the best guess-work on when the next arrival is due could well involve a Y-shaped hazel branch and a set of scary looking playing cards.  No, in Wolverhampton you turn up at the bus stop and wait. And wait. And wait. And if you are really lucky a bus might turn up. If not, you wait.  From time to time (such as now on the 255/256 route) NXBus provide a detailed timetable at each stop, though this is far from accurate. At other times on other routes there is an indication of how frequent the buses should be. Neither is helpful. The latter makes planning any trip impossible and inefficient. The former just adds “interest” to the morning guessing game. And so it is that last week the 7.15 bus was 10 minutes early (luckily I was there to catch it) yet this morning it was 5 minutes late (a 15 minute wait – at least it was light today) which created a knock-on effect so that I was ultimately 25 minutes later arriving to work. Some days it just fails to turn up! Can you see why it might be getting stressful yet?

I have always been a person who likes a bit of certainty in life. I also like to get to where I’m going. These are traits that are mine to control and adapt. What I would like though is for those responsible for my journey to work to play their part in delivering a bit of quality, certainty and efficiency. At least answer my complaints properly. Or even just respond to the customer feedback I, and others, provide on Twitter. Is that too much to ask in 2011? Till then it’s back to the old waiting game until I can afford that folding bike – then I can beat the buggers within my control.