I Hacked the British Public Transport System
By hiding in a suitcase for six hours.
This past year, an average of 640 trains have been cancelled every day in the UK. That's 233,606 cancelations a year or – depending on which way you want to anger yourself – 7,221,879 planned journeys affected. And it's not even like we're offered a discount for this shitty service – Britain's rail system is the most expensive in Europe, and keeps getting pricier.
So what do we do? Do we lie back and take it? Sentenced to an eternity of forking out handfuls of cash in exchange for tardiness and discomfort? No, we stand up and fight. After over a decade of catching public transport and struggling to afford it, I've arrived with an arsenal of hacks, tricks and grifts that can level the playing field. Simple ruses that make the system work for you.
Let's start at Kings Cross. I need to be in Stevenage in less than an hour and am desperate for the toilet. I get on the Stevenage train but it's a shit heap: filled to the brim with people resting bags on seats, frowning into their Kindles and huffing you away like irritated horses. I've paid good money for a ticket but there isn't a seat in sight. So what options do I have? Stand up? Not with these knees. Sit on the floor? That won't do – I'm no Future of the Left.
But then I remember: of course! The great emancipators, stuffed in my jacket pocket: the trusty Post-it notepad and Sharpie!
Crude, unadulterated comfort.
After a clean hour of toilet dwelling, only disturbed by one or two disgruntled knocks from passengers who quickly move on to one of the train's other five toilets, we arrive at my destination. An hour enjoying my own space. I could get used to this way of life.
Next I want to go to York – my sister lives up there and is pregnant with her first child, and I haven't seen her in months. I've bought a ticket for the train, but did I have to? I've heard an old urban myth that you can hide in a suitcase on a train without ever being bothered by a ticket inspector, and I want to see if it's true, or even feasible.
First, I need a friend, and a strong one at that. It just so happens that my pal and trusty photographer Chris Bethell is really fucking strong, has never been to York and feels a three-hour train journey is a meagre undertaking in exchange for one of Greggs' Meat and Potato pasties unique to the north.
Next, I need a suitcase. I figure I want one that's either blue and red (you'll see why) and that's the right size for a 5'9, 10-and-a-half stone human – so a 34" works for me. I cut out a small hole in the suitcase. Then, when I arrive at the station, I just need to pop around the corner...
And get inside.
This is the hard bit. I'm caught between freaking out and searching for air holes while holding my nose, hushing that game-giving-away-laughter.
Once I'm through the gates and onto the train my friend finds an inconspicuous little corner to nestle me in. This will be my home for the next two hours, so it's important to get comfortable.
The next 20 minutes are difficult. A constant shuffle from arsecheek to arsecheek, trying to ration out the numbness, I start thinking I should have done Patsy Kensit's workout video and stretches before I left the shed I live in this morning. But it doesn't matter, as the novelty of being inside a suitcase will keep me going.
I send texts and photos to my friends from inside the suitcase about being in the suitcase. However, it seems the cramped, claustrophobic world I inhabit is interesting to me and me alone: my messages are delivered, but no one replies. So I scroll through my newsfeed, noticing that my parents are discussing their pride in me with my godmother on Facebook: "Oobah's in the Guardian today!" they write. I squint around the pitch black. "This suitcase is your ceiling," my brain whispers.
I hear footsteps reverberating through the carriage, which come to a halt right beside me. "Is anybody in there?" My heart goes. Just a metre from my head a door opens and shuts. Of course he wasn't talking to me – he was talking to the toilet door. 'Thank goodness,' I think, before realising I'm thankful for a man shitting within arm's reach of me.
Eventually I feel two kicks in the case from my friend: this is the signal that the ticket inspector is on their way, so I give up on comfort and stop shuffling around. I hold my breath as I hear it: "Tickets and passes, please!" she says, her voice muffled by several layers of suitcase. My chest contracts and expands, unwillingly. The silence lingers. "Thank you." She moves on.
Thirty minutes left, and it feels as if somebody is sat with a lighter, giving the cartilage behind my kneecaps a smiley. Somebody has left the toilet door open and it smells like piss. I've snapchatted pitch black into a void enough times, and the only thing left to enjoy is on-and-off bouts of pins and needles. I wish that the suitcase had been laid on its back so that I was packed more foetal, less child in an air raid. Daylight seems like a distant thing. I yearn for it. So I rock the suitcase, back and forth, away from the wall.
I apply some Poundland Avengers make-up to my face using the light and front-facing camera on my phone, and open the porthole I'd cut into my bag earlier in the day.
Sip at the air, keep a straight face; I'm a chameleon. Just 20 minutes to go.
I feel the train stop and people starting to gather around me. I'm unsure whether or not this is reality or in fact a fever dream, until my friend starts to re-zip the small parts of the case he's loosened for comfort. The train doors part, I feel the cold air and subsequent thud of the ground. I've never been closer to the sandstone of York. After a few minutes, light permeates through the small slits in the suitcase. This is the unmistakable shine of the King's city.
The majesty of Britain's most beautiful Cathedral.
Take it in, friend.
I see my sister and head to a local school Christmas fair. I purchase some arts and crafts; enjoy some pupils' portraits of Nelson Mandela; get myself a drink and play the tombola.
I also win an Angry Birds belt.
Then, after enjoying myself for a few hours and drinking enough for the novelty of spending multiple hours in a suitcase to return, I get back in the suitcase. I'm wheeled onto the train and to London. This time, I ask to be positioned on my back, under the luggage rack, so that things aren't so difficult. I put in my headphones, listen to the soothing voice of Scott Carrier on Home of the Brave, and surprisingly manage to nod off.
I eventually awake to dark, the knowledge I probably have tendonitis and the soothing lights of the capital. I've won: I'm home.
And there you have it. I can tell you now: that luggage rack is going to be busy this December.
DISCLAIMER: VICE does not actually encourage anyone to hide in a suitcase for three hours on a train. Partly because it's illegal if you're doing it to take a train without a ticket, but also because you'll probably break all your bones when someone shoves you over to make room for a buggy. If you're wondering how to actually behave on public transport, we made a guide for that.
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