The 1130 PM coach from London Victoria to South Shields began its journey inconspicuously enough. It filled all its seats and set out through the permanently lit streets of the capital. Passengers tired, uncomfortable with the narrow legroom and slanting seats but grateful to be on their way to their destinations – home, family, holiday.
I was one of those weary travelers, my body drained by the adrenaline fueled job interview I had attended during the day. I’d been on edge all evening waiting for a phone call from the employer that never came. Now for the first time in two days I could try and relax and sleep through the journey back north.
I woke a couple of hours later to the voice of the driver announcing our arrival in Woodall Services. He said we were just waiting on the replacement driver and if people wanted to leave the bus they had to be back by 3am. I took the chance to escape the rather pungent passenger I was sat beside and stretch my legs with a trip inside the service station to exercise my bowels.
I returned to the coach a little before 3am, the door of which had been left open with the effect that the passengers inside were beginning to slowly chill. There was no driver to be found. No replacement, and in fact no original driver. I returned to my seat and shivered quietly. Other passengers were not so patient and a young lady behind me began to take charge of the situation – if you can call liberally swearing about the coach company a suitable act of leadership. An hour passed and still no driver. Another coach pulled up and our Boudicca marched on the unsuspecting 18 stone driver and demanded to know where ours was. Meanwhile at the request of passengers I had called the coach companies emergency helpline.
“Our office is closed now. Please call again between 8am and 5pm”
It was 338 am. I could only laugh. My fellow passengers didn’t see what was so funny. Returning to my task of communicating our displeasure I sent off a few text messages to the Feedback number advertised on a window sticker. It asked me to rate my journey from 1 to 5. 1 being the lowest. I gave it a 2. I don’t know why. The automated system responded with an apology and asked if I would like a customer representative to call me. My fellow passengers perked up. We were getting somewhere at last. I texted back yes. The automated response:
“A representative will be in touch in the next 48hrs”
I had to laugh again. Maybe it was the exhaustion fuddling my brain. The other coaches driver eventually came on board and announced that our driver had arrived.
“However he was running late and has been forced to take a statutory break. He’ll be about thirty minutes, but he is here. Have a safe journey!”
I think we all preferred it when we didn’t know where the driver was. Various plots to lynch him on his arrival were proposed and knocked down. People were too tired and grumpy to go to the trouble. When he did show he smirked at the sarcastic round of applause from the passengers and explained;
“You’ll have to blame Take That.”
And we were off at last. We had been in Woodall almost two hours. Any longer and the company might have been given a £90 fine for over staying its welcome at the Wellcome Service station.
I settled back down and began to fall asleep again. A loud crack stirred me, and my seat seemed to tilt slightly. When we arrived in Doncaster Mr Pungent, to my relief, got off. Just as well considering my seat then fell to the floor. I picked it up and handed it to the bemused bus driver who counseled sagely:
“Perhaps you better sit on another seat.”
So I did, but the bus didn’t resume its journey. No, three women approached our driver from outside and protested that, shockingly, their coach hadn’t turned up for the last 3hrs. Shocking! A twenty minute delay was followed as our driver organized a taxi for the stranded trio.
And we were off again.
Only not very far as the driver made a wrong turn into a one way street and spent five minutes trying to reverse his cumbersome vehicle out and back to the motorway.
I’d love to say that is where the drama ends, but that would be presumptuous.
After all, we’re still traveling.
The above was written whilst on the #436 National Express Coach from London Victoria to South Shields on the morning of Saturday 28th May 2011.
UPDATE: National Express have completed their investigation, apologized and offered me a free ticket for another go on their great service. Laugh or cry? You decide.