East Midlands Railway, You’ve Given Me Some Of The Best And Worst Moments

Strangers commuting on a train

“We are trying to locate a 7ft inflatable flamingo that has gone missing from Coach B,” the tannoy alerts on the Norwich–Liverpool train. It’s 5 pm. 

The announcement forces passengers to tear themselves away from the phone screens in front of them. One man turns down the music he is playing (out loud) to check he has heard correctly. While it’s a bizarre announcement, it does make me think for a second — while people catch each other’s eyes as they look up from their phones to acknowledge. Sometimes we are so caught up in life that we fail to acknowledge the human existence around us and the profound stories that are right under our noses. 

So how did I find myself doing vodka shots with a Hen party at 9 am in Nottingham railway station, you ask? East Midlands Railway, of course. More specifically, the Norwich–Liverpool train. According to research by Car Parts 4 Less (via Finance Digest) in 2017, Brits spend an average of 8,084 hours commuting in their lifetime. I can assure you that all of my 8,084 hours will have been spent on this specific train. 

Supposedly designed for shorter regional distances — this train has SO MANY stops — anyone who has grown up in Norfolk and gone to university in Midlands/up North/visited friends there knows the pain of the Norwich–Liverpool train. Although it may have been voted the second best place to raise a family in the UK, Norwich — the home of Alan Partridge, mustard, and a largely mediocre football team — is far away from everywhere. It might as well be a different country.

If you’re travelling anywhere outside of the Greater Anglia belt, your journey out of Norwich will be a slog. Kiss goodbye to the plug sockets and legroom of Greater Anglia’s swish new Cinderella-like carriages, and say hello to the Victorian-style vibes of East Midlands Railway’s sweaty service — which only has two carriages despite the fact it’s making a 6-hour journey.   

Truly, though, I hate to think of how many hours I’ve lost travelling on that train, squidged up against the wall, ready to fight the businessman opposite for the next available seat. Elbows at the ready. Little dignity left. One thing that does bring me joy is whipping out my 17–25 railcard when the Jobsworth conductor thinks I’ve tried to fare dodge. Yes, you can see my digital railcard, which I spent all of my TESCO clubcard vouchers on. Also, the number of people boarding the train thinking it’s going to London, Liverpool Street. Rookies.

Something that strikes me — as I stare pensively out of the window, imagining I’m in some kind of music video — is how intimate trains are. There is such a juxtaposition of private moments and conversations in such a public setting. It almost reminds me of a hospital waiting room. There was once a car dealer sitting next to me, reading aloud his company’s bank details loud enough for the whole carriage to hear. How did he know I wasn’t a highly sophisticated fraudster? I also remember hearing a couple playing out break up scenarios to pass the time: “Would you break up with me if I told you I cheated five years later?” I almost lost it when she said, “Would you still love me if I was a snail?” Then there are the oil rig workers on the way back to see their families after months of being away, talking about how excited they are over a can of Stella at 8am in the morning.  

I was also privy to a lovely moment when two Irish women bonded over being Irish and finished the journey being best friends. One was an architect, and the other had 18 siblings, and they shared childhood stories and interior design inspiration, exchanging obligatory grandchildren photographs. A man on the opposite side of the aisle was saying goodnight to his children after bath time because he wouldn’t be back in time to put them to bed.  

Then there have been the sadder moments. The woman who found out her mum had died over the phone. And the man who wept to me about his mother who had passed away in her care home due to COVID — despite the fact she had been perfectly well before the pandemic. Initially, I had felt uncomfortable when he had sat close to me without a mask, but by the end, it didn’t matter. This was a person in crisis.  

There have been more lighthearted moments, too. Helping a man get to a wedding he was already late for due to heat wave-induced train cancellations across the country. I don’t think he was the Groom. Then there was the man who decided he was Shakira for the evening and took it upon himself to give the carriage a lesson in belly dancing. That was fun. There was only once a very kind lady who gave me an apple and a packet of crisps on a severely delayed train back from Manchester when she discovered I hadn’t been able to eat lunch before the journey.

I’ve encountered people that are kind, funny, sad, lost, and (very) drunk on this train, and it’s made me realise how much of a hub for humanity trains are. 

I wonder if they ever did find that inflatable flamingo?

By Hannah Bradfield

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