Monday, April 26, 2010
Feel free to post my story. My cousin running for office is Barbara Dawson. She is running for the Oldham Council, representing Failsworth East. Oldham is one of the boroughs of Greater Manchester. Oldham is quite a large area with a large population.
April 24, 2010
I feel truly lucky to have made it to Manchester so quickly, given the circumstances. Here is how it happened.
I have been planning this trip to the UK for a long time with the intent of being here for the elections. My plan was to be in Manchester for the final two weeks before the election on May 6. I added three days in front of the two weeks to do some hiking in North Wales with cousins Peter & Ros. Monday, April 19th was Peter's birthday, and they had rented a cottage in Beddgelert, Wales, for an entire week to celebrate his birthday. They invited me to join them for a few days, so I selected April 19th as my departure date from San Francisco--which would get me to the UK two weeks and three days before the election.
The Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, had been erupting at a lower level ever since March 20, but on April 14 the eruption expanded rather dramatically, spewing ash into the airspace over the UK and some parts of Europe. Countries began closing their airspace out of fear of possible damage to aircraft and danger to crew and passengers. By April 16 I was wondering if my plane would leave as scheduled on April 19. I was flying Delta/KLM. I kept checking the website, and it never said my flight was cancelled. I signed up for an early-alert email notification system from Delta Airlines, which is supposed to send me an email the minute any flight on which I am booked gets cancelled.
No cancellation email had come by April 18, so I began my journey with a trip to Santa Cruz. I spent Sunday night at a friend's house before leaving by public transportation for San Francisco Airport on Monday morning, April 19. When I got to the airport I immediately checked the monitors, and my flight was still listed. I went to the check-in desk and there was a huge mob of people queued up waiting to be checked in. This was over three hours before flight time. In fact, it took over two hours for me to make my way through the line and up to the desk. At the desk I was informed that I could check in for the flight to Amsterdam, but I could not yet check in for the Amsterdam to Manchester leg of the journey. Also, my bag could only be checked as far as Amsterdam. What had happened was that The Netherlands and most of Europe had opened their airspace at that time, but the UK airspace was still closed. They did not know if my flight from Amsterdam to Manchester would be permitted by Tuesday afternoon, as that was still fourteen hours away.
At this point let me note that several lucky things have happened to me on this journey, the first one being that the airline had chosen to route me through Amsterdam. As there are no direct flights from San Francisco to Amsterdam, I had to have at least one stopover. As I was arranging my trip online I had several choices of departure times. The time that I thought would be most convenient happened to be by way of Amsterdam. Other possible routes stopped off in US cities before flying directly to Manchester. For example, my return flight is Manchester to Atlanta, Atlanta to San Francisco. If my outbound flight had been via Atlanta, I would probably still be in the US.
I accepted KLM's explanation and checked in for the Amsterdam leg of the journey. However, there were a few delays. The check-in process was exceptionally slow, and there were loads of people behind me. For that reason, and perhaps others, our flight left over an hour late. The next problem was that we could not follow the normal great circle route, which would have taken us across Greenland, over Iceland and Scotland and into Amsterdam. That would have taken us through closed airspace, and perhaps through the cloud of ash. Instead we followed a more southern route, coming across the Atlantic below the UK and entering Europe along the southern Atlantic coast of France. Once in French airspace we turned northward across Belgium and into Amsterdam. This route took about two hours longer than the usual route, getting us to Amsterdam three hours late.
Since I only had two hours between planes in Amsterdam I knew I would miss my flight. It didn't matter, as that flight had been cancelled anyway. They were not sure when any flights to Manchester would be allowed in the future.
Side Note: The airport at Amsterdam had free WiFi, so I got out my laptop and looked for that email about the flight cancellation; there was none. My flight had been cancelled, but the alerting system had not functioned properly. I am not sure why I had not been notified.
When your flight gets cancelled, you don't get booked on the next flight because that flight typically is already full. I didn't try to rebook my flight because there was a big mob at the KLM ticket counter. Some people where getting their flights, to various places, rebooked for dates as late as May 5th. It seems the earlier flights had been filled with people rebooking from the cancelled flights of Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Those of us with Tuesday cancellations were at the back of the queue.
Since the UK election was set for May 6th, I did not want to wait till May 5th to fly. I looked into other options. I was really glad I had my laptop with me, I spent about three hours on the laptop researching other means of transport. First I checked to see if I could fly to anywhere within the UK, no matter how far the destination might be from Manchester. The answer was that there were no flights available to anywhere in the UK in the foreseeable future.
I had traveled once by overnight ferry operated by Stena Lines that goes from Hoek Van Holland to Harwich, England. That ferry was full for Tuesday night and Wednesday night, but there was space on an Wednesday afternoon sailing. I tried booking on line with the English version of the Stena website, but it was not functioning properly. I found that the Dutch version worked better. I made my way through the Dutch version about half way, then found someone who spoke both Dutch and English to help me complete it. When I pushed the final button, it cam back with something in Dutch that I did not understand. I asked my Dutch friend, and he said it meant that the sailing was now full. It had filled up in the ten minutes that it had taken me to complete the booking form. That is not surprising, considering that thousands of people were trying to do the same thing that I was doing. I double checked the result by going back to the website, and indeed, it said the Wednesday afternoon sailing was now completely booked.
I tried booking ferries from other points in Europe to anywhere in the UK. It turns out that most of them do not take bookings for foot passengers online. If I had a car, however, I could have booked a space. However, car rentals were all completely booked as well. People had been stranded for up to five days before I arrived and had already exhausted a lot of the obvious resources.
I also checked into the Eurostar service through the Chunnel, but that was booked solid through Thursday. I didn't want to wait till Thursday.
I went back to the ferry companies. There are about a dozen of them that go to the UK from various points. P&O Lines from Calais, France to Dover in England will book foot passengers online, but they were completely full. Sea France operates ferries between Calais and Dover, but they did not allow booking of foot passengers online. However, I noticed a sidebar that said that during the crisis, they were taking on foot passengers, but only those who came in person to Calais to buy a ticket.
That meant going to Calais, not knowing how long the wait might be when I got there. I decided to chance it. I got in the queue for the ticket window of the train station in the Amsterdam Airport. I had been there before, so I knew how this worked. There is a large, underground train station in the Amsterdam Airport with multiple platforms and trains to various points every few minutes.
It took me two hours in the queue for the train ticket window. I had my luggage in a cart, and I was able to balance my laptop on top of the cart as I inched toward the ticket agent. I kept researching alternatives. Some people near me in line asked me to look up things for them, which of course I did. There is great camaraderie among travelers stranded together whilst dealing with the same crisis. My laptop helped some people think of new options that might work for them.
At the ticket window I had no trouble obtaining a ticket to Calais. It involved three trains: Amsterdam to Antwerp, Belgium; Antwerp to Lille, France; Lille to Calais. There were no more bookings for Tuesday, so I got the earliest booking for Wednesday morning. It was to leave at 7:09 a.m. on Wednesday. As this was at about 7 p.m. on Tuesday night, that gave me time to search out a hotel room, get a meal and get some sleep.
Wednesday started out smoothly. My train left exactly on time, and arrived in Antwerp on time. Here is where I missed an opportunity. The ticket agent had sent me on the 7:09 train because she said the connection in Antwerp would be too tight if I took the 8:09 train. The 8:09 would arrive only five minutes before the train to Lille was to depart, and it was from a different platform in a very large station. A delay of a couple of minutes would mean I would miss the train to Lille. However, the ticket agent failed to tell me that the Lille trains left every hour, and that if the 7:09 train were to arrive on time I could catch the earlier train to Lille. I only figured that out about two minutes too late, by looking at the departure board.
The departure board told me that the next train to Lille, the one an hour later, would leave from Platform 14. Since I had nearly an hour to wait I walked around a bit. About twenty minutes before train time, which was to be 10:05, I decided to make my way to the platform. Just on a whim I decided to check the departure board again to make sure they had not changed the platform. It was a good thing I did that. The board no longer said Platform 14; instead, there were three asterisks where the platform number should have been, and another whole line inserted below the train information line. Unfortunately, everything was in Flemish, and I could not understand a word of it. I thought it might be saying that the platform was being changed, and a new platform was to be announced. However, no new platform number appeared, so I went to ask a ticket agent who spoke English. It turns out that the wording was saying that the train would leave from the Antwerp Bergen station instead of the Antwerp Central station, and that I would need to take another train to the Bergen station. She said that train would leave from Platform 12 at 9:57 a.m. It was already 9:53, so I had to get there in four minutes; I managed it in three minutes. Since my train to Lille was supposed to leave Antwerp Central at 10:05, I wondered what would have happened if I had showed up at 10:00, only to be told that the train I needed had left three minutes earlier!
I made it to Bergen and caught the train to Lille, which was running about five minutes late. I also had a tight connection in Lille, but the ticket agent had told me that would be no problem. However, it was a problem. Again, there was only five minutes between trains, and the train was running five minutes late. When we arrived a lot of desperate people jumped off the train, ran to the monitor, and then ran to the departure track. I estimate that there were about two hundred of us. However, we all missed the train. It was to leave at 12:00, and we arrived at the track at 12:01. We all had to wait for the 1:00 train. Nearly all of these people were stranded airline passengers trying to make it to the UK, so the frustration level was quite high. My frustration level was not all that high, as I had only been trying to get across the water for about 24 hours; some people had been trying for five days.
I used the hour layover to get some lunch, and got on the Calais train with no problem. On the train I sat at a table, and a young man sat down across from me at the same table. He thought I might be a Brit and he asked me if I had an adapter that would allow him to plug in his UK cell phone charger into a European socket on the train. Well, I am not a Brit, but it turned out that I had the right adapter, and he borrowed it. Coincidentally he was also headed to Manchester, so we became traveling companions for the remainder of the journey. We were together for the next twelve hours, and looked after one another's bags and helped one another in other ways.
His name was Tony, and he was making his way back from New Zealand to Manchester. He had been there for his sister's wedding. He was supposed to fly New Zealand to Dubai, Dubai to the UK. However, because the flights could not leave from Dubai for the UK, Dubai would not let passengers come into Dubai without an ongoing flight. Tony's wife, back in Stockport, Greater Manchester, was frantically trying to find a way for him to get home. She researched it pretty thoroughly and told him to get to Calais by any means necessary. She had tried booking a hotel room for him in Dubai to see if she could get him that far, but that booking was not good enough for the Dubai authorities. They would not let Tony board the plane unless he had a way out of Dubai. I guess there were already too many people stuck in Dubai. Then Tony found out that he could fly from Dubai to Malta, so he booked an ongoing ticket for Malta. The Dubai authorities accepted that arrangement, and he was able to fly to Dubai and then on to Malta after a two-hour layover. From Malta he was able to catch a plane to Marseille, France. He got a hotel room for the night and then took several trains to Calais; I met him on the last leg of that train journey.
In Calais we took a shuttle bus from the train station to the ferry terminal. They had put on extra shuttle buses to handle the crowds. When we got to the ferry building we saw a huge throng of people outside the terminal, at least a thousand, maybe more. The French television stations were there with their remote broadcast units showing the crowd and interviewing a few people who spoke French. We thought we would never make it through that huge queue. The terminal workers were trying to organize things. They had set up traffic cones with plastic tape between them marking out lanes for the people standing in the lines, forming a zig-zag pattern. They kept having to expand the area as new buses arrived. When we got there the queue had already completely filled in the space where the shuttle buses are supposed to drop people. We were standing in what should have been a road as we waited to get into the building. Obviously, they had never seen a crowd this big before and did not have the facilities to handle so many people. The people were all pretty good natured about it all. They were helping one another out, sharing food, etc. A man with a megaphone came outside and addressed the crowd, assuring us that everyone in line would indeed get on a ferry that day. They had put on extra ferries and extra staff, and were running ferries through the night. It seemed that the whole crowd breathed a sigh of relief.
Surprisingly, the line moved along rather quickly. It took only about two and a half hours for us to get inside the building and up to one of the ticket windows. As we approached one of the four Sea France ticket windows we saw a sign that said the next sailing would be at 5:20 p.m. It was about 4:50, so we hoped we would have time to make it. However, as we got closer to the window they changed the sign to one that read "next sailing at 6:50 p.m.," ninety minutes later. We were disappointed, of course. We got our tickets and then spent about thirty minutes going through security and passport control. Next we had to wait for a shuttle bus to the ferry itself. We waited quite a while. Two buses finally arrived simultaneously. Tony and I got on the first one and which took us on the five-minute journey to the ferry. We got off the bus and boarded the ferry at about 5:40 p.m. Much to our surprise, and before the second shuttle bus arrived, the ferry closed the gang plank and began its journey. It turned out that we were aboard the 5:20 ferry, which was leaving about twenty minutes late.
That was our first bit of good luck. It meant getting to Dover an hour and a half ahead of the next ferry, which meant being in Dover in time to catch the last train to Manchester. We were helped along in that effort by another stroke of good luck. At the ferry terminal in Dover there is a ticket window for the trains. A worker there advised us to buy the ticket there, instead of at the train station. However, as we stood in the queue, another worker came by and asked where we were going. When we said Manchester he advised us to get out tickets at the station; the ferry terminal was really only set up for people traveling to London, and they would have trouble issuing a ticket all the way to Manchester. So we left the queue to go outside for the supposedly "free" shuttle bus. It turned out that the shuttle bus was two pounds per head. The driver said that had been the fare for the last six years, and that the people inside had been told that repeatedly; however, they were still telling passengers that the shuttle buses were free.
The two-pound fare was not our stroke good luck. Our good luck was that by leaving the queue early we got an earlier shuttle bus. It turns out that the shuttles only come every fifteen minutes, and they were filled to overflowing. They had not put on extra buses to handle the large crowds. Tony and I were the last two to get on that bus. There were at least fifty people behind us waiting for the next shuttle. There were hundreds of people aboard that ferry needing to be shuttled. It became obvious to us that we were lucky to be on an early bus. People far behind us might have to wait up to an hour for a bus. If we had stayed in the train-ticket queue in the ferry terminal we well could have been too late to catch the train we needed, leaving us stranded overnight. As it was, we got to the Dover train station in time to catch a high-speed train to London that connected us with the last high-speed train of the night to Manchester.
The high-speed trains we caught were brilliant. It was a one-hour ride from Dover to London, two hours from London to Manchester. Back in 1999 and 2002, when I was living in London, it took four hours to get from London to Manchester. Both of the British trains we took left exactly on time and arrived exactly on time. I was impressed.
I arrived in Manchester at 11:48 p.m., about 34 hours behind my original schedule. I lost about a day and a half. Others have lost a week or more. I feel like I am among the lucky ones--and I have had a bit of an adventure as well. I have no complaints.