‘Make yourself a happy bunny this Easter with cheap tickets and egg-cellent deals!’ chirped the Abellio train company advert.
I use Abellio’s Greater Anglia service regularly from London and was looking forward to a nice fluffy ride to Norwich. I was late for the 9 a.m. train but the Liverpool Street station Abellio assistant smilingly informed me I wouldn’t need to pay extra for the later train. I bought a cup of coffee and presented my ticket to the barrier staff at platform 11. A dignified-looking man of African origin with ritually scarred cheeks seemed to be unusually officious. Tapping my ticket with the sharp end of a pencil he said: ‘This will not do. Show me your ID. Please.’
I fished out my University of East Anglia lecturer card. (It was all I had.) ‘I am afraid that’s not possible,’ he added flatly.
‘Impossible? What’s not possible?’
‘It’s not possible for you to get on the train with that. You will have to go to the Abellio ticket office.’
‘I can’t miss a second train to Norwich!’
‘It makes no difference to us. You will have to go to the Abellio office,’ he said with intensifying satisfaction.
Already I could feel the deadly stranglehold of privatised railway red tape. There was plenty of inefficiency in the state railway monopoly of the 1970s but British Rail surely had provided a less expensive and more accountable service. Abellio is not even British: it is part of Dutch state railways and clogged up at all ends (they say) with superannuated rolling stock.
‘You must go to the office!’ The man put on his best official voice. ‘This ticket will not do.’ Exasperated, I retrieved my credentials and made my way up the platform towards the waiting train regardless. Ten seconds or so later a voice behind me proclaimed loudly: ‘If you get on that train, I will call the police!’ It was the same Abellio staff member. I got on the train.
He got on the train and followed me as I walked from carriage to carriage, threatening me the while in self-important tones. ‘I have already told you! This train will not be moving until you get off! If you don’t get off I will call the police!’ He was walking a foot behind me as passengers looked up from their laptops to stare. Perhaps he affected an overweening imperiousness to make up for the inefficiency of Abellio.
According to a 2014 Which? magazine survey, the company’s Greater Anglia service has the lowest customer satisfaction rating of all UK rail companies. The official only ever saw the failures and aberrations of Britain’s corporate rail system. At least on this train with its shiny plastic tables and shiny plastic seat covers he could lord it over others. His authority proceeded from a formidable knowledge of the operations of the Abellio franchise rule book.
I could feel the sweat running cold down my shoulder blades as I continued walking down the length of the train. The man’s voice had grown in volume and stridency. ‘This cavalier attitude of yours will not do! You cannot treat me like your son!’ Why son? (Only then did it dawn on me that he might, at some level, be unhinged.) ‘You are going to be arrested,’ he went on peremptorily. ‘The police are coming for you now.’
At last I turned to face him. ‘If you don’t stop following me, I am afraid I shall have to call the police.’ Eyes shifted awkwardly in Carriage B as I took my seat there. Cursing loudly, the staff member got off and had words with an Abellio colleague on the platform. The colleague stirred himself slightly, nodded his understanding, shrugged, then took a sip of coffee from his Starbucks cup and looked the other way.
My tormentor (a word only slightly exaggerated) returned to the carriage and in the same bullying voice went on: ‘This train will not be leaving until you get off.’ Eventually he got off and the train — cutely named ‘Sir John Betjeman’ — left on time. Pathetically vindicated, I waved a sarcastic goodbye to the unwavering official as he stood glaring at me from Platform 11. Still I worried that the police were waiting for me at the next station. As the train drew into Stratford I contemplated jumping off like Robert Donat in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps but I locked myself in the lavatory instead. Needless to say there was no water for flushing.
On emerging exhausted from the lavatory at Chelmsford, I presented my ticket to an Abellio staff member (a different staff member, fortunately), who inspected it without any questions asked. On arrival at the UEA campus I bumped into my colleague Giles Foden, the novelist, who said I ought to complain.
In due course, Abellio Customer Relations apologised (‘Rudeness or discourtesy on the part of our staff will not be tolerated’) and promised to refer the matter to Liverpool Street station’s revenue protection office, whatever that may be. No compensation was forthcoming but an Easter bunny really would have been egg-cellent.