I am, you might just guess at this point, a tad miffed with them. Here’s why…
Last week I spent a lovely few days staying at my mother’s home in the town just outside Leicester where I grew up . Last Saturday I made my return journey back to Cumbria.
I had booked a ticket with National Express who are much cheaper than trains and usually cheaper than the cost of petrol if you go by car. What could go wrong? I thought.
I left Whitehaven at 7:15 am and, after a two-hour stop for lunch at Birmingham took my connecting coach to Leicester arriving at 5:30 pm. Slow it might be but the coaches were and are reliable and I had books to read and work to do on the laptop so all was fine. I was looking forward to my return journey though the stop in Birmingham was going to be shorter – just 90 minutes to spare. Enough time to book in seeing an old friend for lunch (and one I was so very looking forward to spending time with) before the lengthy northern journey would get me into Whitehaven for 8:30 pm.
I had no idea what a horrible day it would turn out to be.
Good friends dropped me in to Leicester in decent time on the Saturday. My coach was to leave St Margaret’s Bus station at 11:15 am and I was there by 10:45 am. St Margaret’s is a big station and I didn’t know which stand my bus would arrive at so I found the National Express waiting room. They had two nice big screens on the wall – one for arrivals and one for departures. My coach – the 339 – was on both and both said ‘en route‘.
I found a seat in the packed waiting room on the opposite side to the digital screens but could see them clearly despite my eyesight not being good. What I did not see was the scrappy white A4 sheets taped to the wall next to, but lower than, the screens. This, it turns out, would be vital to my future happiness.
There were announcements on the PA system about coaches coming or going but, to be honest, I struggled to understand what was said. But it didn’t matter – I had half an hour before my bus was due to leave and it was still, the screens told me in strong bright letters, ‘en route‘.
I watched the screens like a hawk noticing as other coaches arrived and the screen told people this and which stand they should not go to if they were catching it. The 339 was still ‘en route‘. By 11:10 I thought it was a little unusual for National Express but, these things happen and as the screens told me my coach was ‘en route‘ I had nothing to worry about.
11:16 my coach was now definitely late so I got up, took my suitcase and laptop bag, and walked out of the waiting room area to the lady behind the information desk.
“Excuse me,” I said, “could you tell me how late the 339 is running and when it’s expected to arrive?”
She gave me a withering look.
“It’s gone,” she said simply.
“It arrived at 11 and left on time at 11:15.”
It is fair to say, at this point, I got upset. I didn’t swear (outwardly, admittedly)but my voice was raised when I replied “you’re kidding me, right?”
And the less the pleasant woman behind the desk launched into a tirade of there’s a sign up that clearly tells travelers they have to be outside at the stand 10 minutes before departure and how she did give an announcement that the coach was ready.
I missed the announcement – I’m sure she did announce it and hands up to my own ignorance there but, as I said, I couldn’t tell a word of what was said and I was concentrating on the fully working screen which told me the coach was still – you guessed it – ‘en route’. Even now, it was still on the board saying the same thing even though other coaches had come off the screens by now.
I tried to ask why on earth their system still said it hadn’t arrived yet and how was I supposed to make my connection in Birmingham now. The woman was having none of it. With her hand raised and her face firmly turned away dismissing me, she said she didn’t care – there was a notice saying leave 10 minutes early and an announcement given.
“Well I didn’t hear it.”
“Well 33 other passengers did!”
Hmm…well those 33 passengers weren’t in the waiting room, I can tell you. There was only room for about 20 at most and they were still all waiting in it now. I certainly saw no mad rush for the door at any point.
I had no choice but to try to change my ticket so I went to the other woman at the so-called help desk who dealt with tickets. This woman checked her computer and declared my only chance to catch the Birmingham connection was to take a train – a good 20 minute walk away. By now I was panicking. If I missed the connection then I was stranded in Birmingham.
The only option would be to hope a train could get me to Carlisle without having to sleep on a cold platform half the night. It would be expensive too – that’s why I took National Express in the first place. 80 quid for a ticket wouldn’t be fun when you’re still on minimum wages as a charity worker.
Again I moaned that the screens didn’t change. Again this woman now repeated the same mantra: you had to be outside 10 minutes earlier.
I went and had another look and finally, close up, did see the tatty A4 sheet which looked like it was printed at home taped up nearby. The font wasn’t especially big and there was a lot of writing. Even then, in a rush but close up, I couldn’t read it clearly and still don’t know actually what it said. I went back to the woman.
“I was over the other side of the room. How was I supposed to see that – especially when I’m badly short-sighted!”
It’s true. I am. When I go to the opticians they send me to the doctors every single time because my eyes are a mess. Every time the doctors poke and prod my eyes and eventually declare I’m not going blind, I’m just getting old and that’s why I live with huge blobs floating around my eyes making everything blurry even with specs. But this didn’t wash in Leicester.
“Well, I’m short-sighted too,” the woman declared, “and I can see it perfectly well.”
Bully for you, love.
And she dismissed me with a wave of her hand. Go away, it said, you silly little man.
So I left and ran to catch a train with bags in hand.
Only afterwards it dawned on me that the notice presumably meant stand outside even if your bus is nowhere near arriving yet I still wouldn’t have a clue which stand to go to. That’s why I was watching the screens like a hawk in the first place – to be told which stand to go to like they do in other National Express stations.
It also dawned on me that if someone like my brother-in-law (who is deaf and has worse eyes than me) was travelling here, then the tiny notice and all the announcements on the speaker in the world wouldn’t have helped. There were a lot of OAPs there that morning and I wondered afterwards just how many had missed their coach in the past.
And that made it dawn on me that it probably had happened many times in the past. I don’t think it’s National Express policy to stick up a crappy A4 sheet nearby as a rule for standard notices. This was an attempt to prevent yet another person missing their coach at Leicester. No wonder both women were so dismissive of me. They’ve been here before.
I reached the railway station and just missed the next train to Birmingham. I caught the next one which stopped at every station and took an hour to arrive. By that point I’d cancelled my lunch date (which was incredibly frustrating) and notified Wifey that I may, or may not, be home that evening.
I arrived in Birmingham with 50 minutes to spare to get from the station to the Bull Ring centre and down to Mill Lane on the other side. I hadn’t realised that the station and shopping centre were pretty much connected and that I had no idea where to go. The GPS on my phone helpfully could only tell me I was in Birmingham but could get no greater fix than that. I asked three people the way and got told three times “no speaky English”.
Then two more people asked who spoke English but hadn’t a clue where the Bus station was. I phoned a friend who lives in Birmingham. She actually knew where I should have been and I’d passed it earlier. She talked about a church being there but my recollection from eating in the same place when coming down had no church so I hadn’t recognised it coming from a different direction. Had I listened to her I would still have been fine. Instead, I walked around the place, constantly returning to the blasted railway station like some Groundhog Day nightmare and panicking so much my heart was pounding and I thought I was about to be one of those health advice adverts you used to see – you know the one where the middle-aged man is stressed and has a heart attack in the middle of a crowded area.
By chance, I came back to the area I needed and recognised it, kicking myself for not noticing a ruddy great church plonked there the first time and ran, full pelt, down to the station looking like John Cleese in his ministry of funny walks. I seriously considered just throwing my case in a bin rather than carrying it but then I’d be homeless in Birmingham and not even have a change of clothes if I did get stranded.
I got to the National Express station and looked at the screens. Sure enough, my connection – the 571 – wasn’t yet in and the screens said to ‘wait‘.
Not a chance, I thought, and proceeded to the help desk. I asked if they knew where the 571 would pull in when it arrived.
“Oh it’s here,” the pleasant lady told me, “stand 9.”
I trotted over, showed the driver my ticket and got on the coach straight away.
I sat down and looked at the time: 14:09.
We left exactly on time at 14:10.
If I’d taken just sixty seconds longer I would have enjoyed the sight of watching the coach I’d missed pull away. Instead I was finally taking the journey I had intended in the first place. Hungry, knackered after about an hour of running with cases between two cities and as miserable as you could get but back on track. Thankfully, one good friend was online and got me out of my mood by distracting me with a daft game. It did the job and I finally relaxed.
The next day, after a well-deserved sleep, I went on to the National Express Facebook page to give a short account – just so people knew not to trust what the screens tell you in the stations (and old man’s angry rant? Me? No!). The first thing I saw was a woman’s comment on the page saying the staff at Leicester were “so rude”. I felt a lot better after seeing that. It confirmed what I thought and I knew it wasn’t just me. It’s not so much what they said as their attitude. Go away, you are an idiot, is what came across when what I needed in my panic was sympathy and a desire to help. I would still have had to take a train but I might have thought a little more clearly rather than feel angry and upset in Birmingham and even get a chance to eat a snack from the station cafe rather than have my first meal of the day at 9 in the evening as I did.
Honestly, I would have been better off still in Bangladesh. How can a developing country be more capable of helping a customer in need nicely than a developed country? Something is definitely screwed in British thinking. I know there’s no point complaining to National Express – it’s quite clear it was entirely my fault as far as they’re concerned.
One thing is for certain though: I’ve learned from my mistake here and will never trust a National Express screen again. Instead, I will stand at the help desk and every five minutes or so ask repeatedly “is my coach here yet or is it still en route?”