Never argue with a ticket man
This wasn’t my finest moment, but it’s an illustration of what happens when someone is forced to do something that they think is unfair. Since a man was badly injured in the process of being removed from an overbooked United Airlines flight last week, there have been several other reported incidents of people being forcibly removed from flights.
I was removed from a train once. It wasn’t overbooked, but my problem had been trying to board with my bicycle.
I’ve been refused access to a train before when I haven’t pre-booked my bike, so I was careful to have my tickets ready, for both me and my bicycle. I arrived at the gate with five minutes to spare – plenty of time, or so I thought. The ticket man disagreed.
“You need to arrive ten minutes before the train is due to leave. I can’t let you on this train.”
I was surprised. No one has ever said that to me before and I’ve been taking my bike on the train for years.
My first reaction was panic. “But I have a reservation!” I really needed to get on that train. It was bound for the Lake District, the venue of my ironman triathlon for which I’d been training for months. To not be able to get there didn’t bear thinking about.
“You can get on the train but you can’t bring your bike.”
My thoughts were running at a hundred miles an hour. I needed this bike for the triathlon – I simply cannot get on the train without it. And even if I could, I didn’t now have time be able to go and lock it up and get back before the train departs.
I needed to get on that train.
“Thank you, but I have a reservation and I need to get on the train.”
I walked decisively past the man and approached the train that was waiting in the platform. Unusually, but fortunately, the bike carriage was at the rear of the train: right next to me. There were no other bikes in it.
The man had followed me from the ticket gate and now stood between me and the train.
“I can’t let you board this train,” he says. “You don’t have time.”
I looked at the clock. There were three minutes before the train was due to depart. Loading a bike takes approximately 30 seconds.
“But the bike carriage is right there,” I replied. “I have a reservation. Please, let me load my bike.”
It was a battle of wills. He stood his ground, repeating again and again that it would be my responsibility if the train was delayed. I kept saying that this is the train I’m booked on, if he would just move to the side, he is the one now holding up the train, please allow me to board.
He was following the rules. I thought he was being ridiculous. In desperation I pushed past him, boarding the train 20 seconds before departure. Off came the panniers, the bike was hooked in its place, and I was ready to find my seat.
The man remained on the train and continued to ask me to leave. I had been calm and polite throughout the entire exchange, but now I started arguing. “But I’m here now! The train is ready to depart. Can’t we just leave it?” I looked around at the other passengers for any kind of support. Nothing.
I don’t know why the next thing happened. Perhaps it was because I had shown such a flagrant disregard for this man’s authority. Perhaps it was because I was breaking the rules. Perhaps he was on a power trip. Perhaps he was just one of those people who won’t let things go. He left the carriage and called the police.
An off-duty member of the British Transport Police happened to be on board. He bustled down the train and burst through the door. I thought he’d be my saviour; I assumed that the police are there to help, that they will listen to both sides of a story and come to a calm and reasoned conclusion. Wrong. “This woman won’t leave the train.” That’s all he needed to hear. “No, wait, I…!” Without waiting for my response he physically picked me up and forced me off. I didn’t go easily. “Listen, no!” I grabbed the handrail as he bundled me out of the door, my little finger snapping as his bulk easily overpowered my slight frame. I stood fuming on the platform while he removed my bicycle from its rack, then threw my bags off after me.
The stand-off on the train had lasted for six minutes. Every minute cost the train company £100 in late-running fines.
I waited on the platform for more BTP personnel to arrive, then burst into tears. My Ironman plans had been thrown into doubt; I was in agony, my little finger having been broken in the ruckus; I was infuriated and humiliated. The BTP lady on the platform calmed me down and arranged for me to get on the next train, for which neither my bike or I had a ticket. It was a more direct train and I arrived in the Lake District earlier than expected.
My problem with this whole episode was not the rules. Afterwards, I checked Virgin Trains’ policy on bikes and yes, it recommends you are there ten minutes before departure. I spoke to a BTP representative and they told me if a member of train staff asks you to leave and you refuse, they can legitimately have you forcibly removed without having to ask questions. All of this I accept. The incident didn’t bring out the best side of me; few interactions like this would.
My problem was the handling of the whole situation. Had the ticket man said to me, “Sorry, you are too late to board this train, but I can put you on the next one,” I would have said, “Sure.” Had I been told when I booked my bicycle that I needed to be there ten minutes in advance, I would have done so. If it is a policy that’s worth upholding to such an extreme extent, it needs to be a clearly communicated policy at every level and upheld by everyone. To be then allowed onto a train for which I didn’t have a reservation shows that the policy isn’t worth the ticket it’s printed on. To my frustration, on my return journey I watched a man run the length of the platform with his bike with 30 seconds to go before departure. The guard on that particular train allowed this, even encouraged it. I obviously got the wrong man.
I didn’t ever complain to Virgin Trains about the incident, mainly because technically I was the one in the wrong. But I still feel that indignation about the whole ridiculous, avoidable thing; I was mistreated, humiliated and physically injured, and, one year on, my finger still hurts.