There was not a spare seat in the London bound commuter train and some people were standing. As my eyes surveyed the scene it brought to mind a wartime troop transport with exhausted battle-weary soldiers. But these were not soldiers but civilians and there was no war; only one far away that did not affect these tired looking passengers.
‘Why tired?’ I thought. The time was early morning and most of them can scarcely have been a couple of hours out of their beds; but there was no, ‘hey-ho, hey-ho as off to work we go” spirit here.
The majority of the seated passengers had their eyes closed, dozing or reflecting – relaxing from what? The others either listened to the sounds coming through the leads plugged into their ears or read books, newspapers or magazines. There was no conversation, each recumbent form seemed as in an insulated cocoon of apartness.
The train made its way towards London. At a station that looked like my destination there was a stop but no movement of passengers or opening of doors, ‘Is this London Bridge?’ I called out to the collective; they looked too removed for me to address any particular one.
There was a barely perceptible reaction to my question; an eyelid fluttered, a head turned, a face twitched, but no answer. I stepped into the gangway. ‘London Bridge?’ I called in a louder, querying tone. ‘The train doesn’t stop here.’ The voice came from a bored looking, red faced man aroused from his somnambulence.
Refraining from any contradiction to his comment that was clearly wrong for I had just seen outside a station sign showing LONDON BRIDGE, I took in his meaning. That the train had stopped at this station there was no doubt but seemingly not for passengers to embark or disembark. Such peculiarities were common fare in the way railways are run these days, so I kept quiet. The train began to move.
At the next station – Waterloo East – the listless travellers sprang to life and, en masse – leaving the train surged along a covered walkway with rising gradient. At the top of this covered way a group of ticket collectors were herding passengers into lines to have their tickets checked so evidently I was witnessing a second peculiarity in the system – the non-functioning of electric gates.
My route was not with the greater mass being herded for ticket checks to exit. It was to double back down a second covered walkway descending to a different platform to catch a train coming out of London for my destination at London Bridge.
An inspector, seeing me stray from the other herded sheep raised an arm to bar my progress. I simply struck it aside and walked on or rather hurried  as fast as an 82 year old man can, as I had just heard an announcement that my new train would be arriving in one minute.
The down platform should have been virtually empty – who travels out of London in the morning rush hour? But there were people waiting 6 to 8 ranks deep, and little room for newcomers like me; all victims of the non-stopping trains at London Bridge. How the controllers must have been laughing at the travelling public as they watched their monitoring screens. But of course, on such a peculiar day, these screens were probably not working either. When the train arrived there was the mayhem of the Londoners’ version of genteel pushing and shoving and somehow everyone on the platform managed to board. There was to be no more lethargy amongst these now wide awake commuters; this was basic survival territory.
At London Bridge – one stop – the train emptied and there was a similar surge of massed humanity towards the exits. Along a different covered way the wave progressed. Here the barriers were working and, like paper through a shredding machine, the group split into different strands at the separate exit slots and on to the forecourt to wherever they were individually destined.
I found myself disgorged into a rain-drenched roadway, 15 minutes late for my dental appointment at Guy’s Hospital. It is so many years since I worked in London, now retired, my life is more tranquil and rarely do I have to make a journey there in the rush hour. This time was an experience and I wondered if it had been just as unpleasant when I used to commute but had adapted to it as my fellow passengers today, or is it getting worse?

8 JANUARY 2007