People may moan, but they still choose to travel by train
- Credit: PA
Let the train take the strain, the once-upon-a-time advertising campaign advised.
The rail line fairy tale. Let the train cause the strain is the real-life version.
Train travel is like childbirth. You spend ages convincing yourself it'll be fine, an uncomfortable means to an end and the thought of it is worse than the reality.
Then the reality more than often turns out to be hell, hours of misery and inconvenience, false starts, late arrivals, nil by mouth because the buffet is shut – again, your personal space is invaded by individuals you'd normally cross the street to avoid, and your blood pressure levels soar to wellbeing-risking levels.
You swear you'll never endure the agony again. This is the absolute last time. Never again.
Then, there you are once more, no seat on a heaving train clutching a ticket that cost a king's ransom and knowing that the diesel to drive to wherever you're heading would have cost a fraction of the price.
The idea of train travel should be bliss. Reading, relaxing, listening to music and arriving rested and calm, a welcome alternative to a journey of dicing with near-misses by dumbwit drivers tailgating, cutting up and dangerously overtaking.
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Who couldn't see potential of an efficient service focused on its customers? But, like penicillin, it never works for me.
I'm still haunted by a journey home from my best friend's memorial service in London, alone and sitting on the floor outside the loo from London Liverpool Street to Norwich.
Disbelief that, after the most stressful draining day, the final chapter was full-frontal wafts from the train toilets every few minutes crouched on a filthy floor along grumpy city insurance workers.
Spending a summer travelling the trains of Eastern Europe in the 80s as a student felt like luxury compared to some journeys on our domestic trains.
But, ever the optimist, Saturday was give-it-another-go day, risking a 30-minute ride from Chelmsford to Stratford Westfield with a dear friend who recently moved to Essex.
I should have paid more attention to the business bits on Abellio Greater Anglia's Twitter feed, #checkbeforeyoutravel, But the tart exchanges with riled, at- the-end-of-their-tether £4,000-a-year season ticket holders balling it out for no seats, overcrowding, late arrivals and cancelled trains was much more engaging.
A word to the beleaguered communications team workers; disingenuous replies like: 'We are deeply sorry to hear that, Gordon,' is more likely to fuel rather than calm Gordon's fire.
ENGINEERING WORKS, shouted the poster when we arrived at Chelmsford station.
Our 30-minute whizz-through was really a 90-minute part-train part-bus trundle – Ingatestone to Newbury Park by road – lumbering through heavy Saturday traffic followed by the tube.
I totally understand weekend working, sparing the already-harassed regularly inconvenienced commuters the added disruption of workday engineering works.
But rail companies need to find a more customer-friendly solution that doesn't involve queuing for buses in driving rain and adding hours to journeys, eating into hours of precious days out and weekends.
Standing in a station car park in Essex in drizzle in the dark wondering which one, if any, of the eight buses sitting with drivers in might eventually let you get on and continue your journey niggles slightly about the price you've paid for a ticket.
The whole miserable experience was repeated in the evening, herded with dozens of other exhausted people to spend a good portion of Saturday night in the winter night at Newbury Park car park after a lovely day and evening meal.
It was a comical scene of provincial Britain. Beaten-by-the-system travellers lurked in long-faced silence, the picture of abject misery, but obediently accepting their fate, making no fuss and totally cheesed off at 10pm on Saturday.
Two rail workers in high-vis jackets, hands in pockets, stood in the middle of the car park saying nothing, to each other or us as we waited… and waited.
Families with grizzling small children returning from holiday, elderly people returning from an afternoon in the West End, young people heading for a night out in Essex. We had all chosen to travel by train.
On Twitter this week, a young woman asked for compensation for a journey sitting on the floor on the Liverpool Street to Norwich service. She was swatted away. 'No compensation can be paid in this instance.'
On Tuesday, Luke Wright tweeted at 23.55: 'Why no direct trains to Norwich at half nine and ten? This is TAKING AGES.'
But despite the public dissatisfaction, social media spats and rising expense – a ticket to visit my son in Durham costs more than £100 – a record 1.3 billion people are using trains.
The Office of Rail Regulation said last year that the number of trips by rail had more than doubled since 1995/96.
We might complain, make a fuss, saturate Twitter with service failures and customer nightmares and moan until the cows come home, but we're still paying for tickets, using the trains and standing in damp car parks waiting for buses when we should have arrived home.
Rail companies have no incentive to up their game when their customer base continues to rise along with their revenue.
If its coffers are hit by a customer strike, it might put customer care more at the centre of its operations.