Trench warfare at Waterloo

SUBTITLE: Why I don’t miss commuting

There were dire warnings, but no-one truly expected London’s Waterloo station to turn into Wembley on Cup Final Day.

The thing is, I’m sure the £800m upgrade of Europe’s busiest station will be a wonderful facelift, but what exactly are the hundreds of thousands of commuters who rely on the train service to London supposed to do this summer? Vaporise?

You can’t just tell people to go on holiday for three weeks, work from home, or travel at completely different times while the project is underway. Actually, that’s what rail chiefs have told everyone to do.

Of course, not everyone can heed this advice, and so tonight as I got off a train from the suburbs and passed through the ticket barrier into Waterloo’s concourse, I was greeted by the sight of thousands of seriously grumpy people squinting at the departure boards, their faces frozen into the grimace of a gargoyle. Here’s what the scene looked like:

Waterloo upgrade

They were all wedged up against each other, jostling for position, elbowing each other in the ribs. It was basically trench warfare: Inching forwards in the hope of gaining ground, not letting your guard down for one moment – because if you did you’d get trampled. Thirty minutes, at least, I’d say, just to get on a platform.

There was even an ambulance in attendance in case there were any casualties – you’d think it was some kind of stadium event, but no, they were just trying to get home from work! And paying full fare for it too (the train company’s running half a service, badly, and giving no compensation). Having been a commuter myself years ago, I felt very sorry for all those poor people.

Although maybe they were the lucky ones: Tube passengers were being held back in tunnels for upwards of 15 minutes to reduce the crush. Others were being herded like sheep from the Jubilee line onto the closed platforms where all the work was going on to get to the main station.

As the crowd surged forwards towards a very delayed train, with me trying to go in a different direction, it was like a tsunami of people pushing me back to where I’d just come from. My feet barely touched the ground. Briefcases banged my knees. I was squished between men and women in dark suits, with absolutely no eye contact whatsoever. Everyone maintained a defiant refusal to engage: I know I’m breathing down your neck, I know we’re all in this together, but I can’t see you. I’ve got commuter blindness. Ooops, sorry I just shoved you. I just want to get home, dammit.

I let the groundswell carry me along for a bit until I had to start fighting back in order to escape, and then I was released like a wave dumping a surfer. Phew! I’d got over the mountains to Switzerland.

It’s a good job they were handing out water and ice cream in apology for the modern-day Battle of Waterloo.