diamond geezer

 Friday, July 08, 2011

The text comes through, "Be at Bow Road station 7:30pm, fourth carriage". So there I wait. A succession of trains files through, each carrying homeward commuters further east. But there's still no sign of the two people I was expecting to see. With every passing train I grow slightly more concerned, because every passing train means another two minutes late. At last the appropriate District, destination Upminster, and a weary wave from the doorway. I step on board, and into the middle of a world record attempt. Visiting all the stations on the London Underground in the fastest possible time. 200 down, 70 to go. And currently about ten minutes behind schedule.

I'm joining Geoff and the team on one of the most straight-forward sections of the Tube Challenge. All the way out to Upminster and back - one way slow by District, the other fast by c2c. The only crucial decision to be made is whether to do the fast leg first or second. Get it right and valuable minutes can be shaved off your ultimate time. Get it wrong and you can be stuck out east for ages, waiting desperately to ride back again. So, as West Ham approaches, will somebody please make up their mind? "District or c2c?" Geoff is yelling into his phone. "When's the next fast train due?" Further up the line, a teammate struggles to respond. "Change or continue?!" Reception is intermittently abysmal. "STAY ON?!" The crunch station is coming up fast. "OR GET OFF?!" Everybody else in the carriage stares at the enfolding drama. It's getting a bit frantic in here.

In the end staying on wins, and that's the correct decision. A c2c train is waiting in the parallel platform at West Ham, but it pulls off well before anyone could have charged down through the subway and up the other side. We're staying on the District to the end of the line, so there's twenty minutes to relax. Except no. A photo must be taken at every station, else Guinness won't believe that Geoff and Anthony were here. Got to remember to stand up and snap, got to stay alert. And bad news has arrived. There are serious problems on the c2c tonight, something to do with a one-under at Pitsea, so the service is majorly disrupted. Suicides, cancellations, diversions, all the things you absolutely don't need when you're trying to break a world record. "What if there are no trains back?" "What if we just miss one?" "What if we're stuck out here in the arse end of nowhere?" "What if...?" "What if...?"

Beyond Barking, the handful of ordinary passengers still aboard our carriage watch the challengers with bemused indifference. Who are these people hanging around on the train in running gear? Why do they smell, even reek, as if they've been exercising non-stop for hours? And why are they discussing the 8:17 from Upminster as if their lives depended on it? Our District line train's due into Upminster at 8:16 and 15 seconds precisely, leaving 45 seconds to dash over the footbridge and down the other side. I check my watch, but realise it's not been synchronised so it's technically useless. When every second counts, a tube challenger needs to know precisely when now is.

A dozen more stations ticked off, and Upminster ultimately approaches. It's 8:16 and several seconds, so this connection is going to be damned tight. A well-placed phone call reveals that the 8:17 hasn't yet arrived, there is still a chance, there is still hope. Chances are maximised because we're stood by the correct door in the correct carriage, primed for a perfect getaway. The doors open and the challengers are off, bounding straight up the steps and disappearing from sight. I follow steadily after - I've never been terribly fast with stairs. Had the 8:17 been on schedule I'd be reaching the platform just in time to watch the train disappear from sight. But no, the tracks are still empty and the platform is still full. Maybe this isn't going to be such a disaster after all.

But no 8:17 arrives. The indicator board says it's still on time, yet no train appears. Meanwhile there are hundreds of c2c passengers waiting outside the station for a rail replacement bus, because something is very wrong on the trains tonight. A record-breaking run requires the network to run like clockwork, and a person under a train far away in Thurrock can be the last straw that wrecks everything. At least the enforced break at Upminster gives Geoff, then Anthony, a valuable chance to nip into the gents for relief. When you're on the run for a dozen hours plus, every public convenience helps.

It turns out that the 8:17 has been cancelled, so we're left hanging (oh bugger) for the 8:32. When even that is late, and limps out of the station like a snail, it seems that any attempt to beat the world record is now doomed. Fifteen minutes have been lost here, which'll put the team several trains behind where they could otherwise have been. But never give up, never surrender, the attempt goes on. There is much slouching in seats, much tapping on phones, as the almost-fast train heads back towards town. I leave Geoff and Anthony at West Ham, as they speed off on another fleet-of-foot interchange to mop up the remaining stations before nightfall. "Good luck," I cry, but they've already gone.

Before midnight comes news that the challengers got lucky later. Unexpected connections achieved, faster journeys maintained, even a ride on the elusive U1 bus at West Ruislip. Total time from end to end: 16 hours, 38 minutes, 41 seconds. That's a phenomenal result, almost two hours faster than the last time Geoff broke the all stations record back in 2004. But it's not enough. Guinness certified a new record as recently as last week, recognising Marc Gawley's amazing time of 16 hours, 29 minutes, 57 seconds. Geoff and Anthony have merely taken second place on the podium, for which there's no silver medal, no recognition, just pride. Those 15 minutes lost at Upminster look to have cost them dear. But will they be back to try again? Hell yes, sure, because next time might be The One Where Everything Works.

» Photos from the Tube Challenge
» Geoff's in-depth report (and video)

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