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My worst journeys from hell?

February 27th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments


[A shorter version of this piece was published in the Times]

My worst journeys from hell?  Waiting days for a series of cancelled boats in Ziguinchor, southern Senegal, at 100° in the shade — 6/10.  A bus trip across the Peruvian desert that lasted 24 hours –  8/10.  Taking a train from Birmingham to Edinburgh – 10/10 and not just because it was the last one I did.  Or because it cost hundreds of pounds more for the pleasure that the other ones.  But because you know it could so easily be improved.

Take a much cheaper coach from Birmingham to Edinburgh and you need a numbered ticket with a designated seat to travel.  Just as you do with a plane.  So why is it that British train companies get away with crowding as many people as they possibly can onto a train before shutting the doors?  This particular journey saw passengers crammed solid down the aisles and in the doorways, with luggage spilled in every direction and children crying:  it looked like a train load of refugees after a catastrophe event.  If the train company could have got away with putting passengers on the roof, they would have.  And this was not for a couple of tube stops or a suburban commute, but a five-hour journey. 

It would never happen on, say, the Delhi to Haridwar train, a comparable long distance route.  Travellers to India are often amused by the practice of both numbered and named seats being posted on the entrance to the carriage (and ladies of a certain age embarrassed – your age is posted up as well) .  It’s thorough if pedantic: you are only allowed on the carriage if you have a seat.  Which of course is draconian for a short, casual journey but reasonable for a long distance one — particularly if there are overflow carriages for those without a reservation at all.  As a result you get a fast, comfortable service, with plenty of chai and chapattis to keep you going.

 Perfectly simple to implement here — but the real problem is that the train companies make a great deal of money from overcrowding.  They know perfectly well which services are going to be full — because they always are.  But rather than lay on the extra coaches needed, at additional cost, they continue to cram passengers in like sheep off to the slaughterhouse.  Because they can.  And because — here is the very British rub — they can keep apologising for it.  Every 15 minutes or so we have a tannoyed apology for the avoidable mistake — made with the smugness of an actor repeating his regular lines. 

In much the same way, Cortes and his conquistadors would read out a Spanish legal document to uncomprehending native Indians explaining that, once read, they had the right to conquer and enslave then.  So it is with these train services:  if an apology has been made, they can do anything they like, again and again and again.

No wonder that visitors here complain of the poor quality and overpricing of our trains.  I pity the Indian tourists who blithely imagined they might get service of the sort they are accustomed to at home.  And forget a cup of chai from the trolley service  — which was parked, immobile, at one end of our jammed train.  For which, of course, we received an apology.

One suspects it will take some tragedy of the sort of the Kings Cross fire before the companies are forced to take action.  Certainly the current arrangements make a mockery of the safety regulations which  the tannoy system instructs customers to study. There’s no point in knowing where the safety exits are if the aisles are so jammed you can’t move.

According to the deeply ineffectual Office of Rail Regulation, ‘There is no legal limit on the number of passengers that can travel in any given train coach.  In this, trains differ from other modes of transport – most notably buses and aeroplanes.’  And this is fine, explains the Office, because trains are so well engineered that it does not matter how many passengers are crammed into them,  as it will not affect their performance.

In the face of such breathtaking industry complacence about passenger welfare, there is clearly a crying need to create a legal limit on passenger numbers.  Because without a legal obligation to prevent overcrowding, the train companies will continue to exploit the legal loophole and cram as many passengers as possible onto their depleted trains.

Whatever happened to the Government’s much trumpeted promise in 2007 to provide 1,300 extra carriages to reduce overcrowding?  It has used the protracted negotiations over the new Thameslink contract to delay their introduction.  The Department for Transport has also since neatly changed the definition of overcrowding to massage the figures:  they tripled the threshhold  for overcrowding from 10 people standing for every 100 seats to 30 per 100 seats.   Even with those new definitions, the overcrowding has got worse.

Meanwhile the train companies have seized on an ingenious if perverse safety policy of their own:  pricing people off.  UK train fares are already the highest in the world, according to the Campaign for Better Transport.  They fear that the companies can now afford to raise them even higher – even if we can’t.

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