Travel By Train? Why would you bother if there were other options?

My wife and I have just travelled to Birmingham from Exeter, with a ‘side trip’ to Gobowen (Shropshire): Christmas with family.  We had taken the precaution of booking and reserving seats well ahead, a decision that was both well justified and also completely pointless.  I will explain.  The process of reserving a seat offers various options: facing direction of travel, table, near luggage racks, near toilets, near power outlet (for the inevitable I.T.) and so on.  What these options do not allow you to do is select a different option for each of what may be multiple seats: travelling together but selecting aisle seat may result in being separated (i.e. not adjacent) – there is no option for adjacency.  On one of our journeys this meant being in different rows.  On another journey our ‘facing direction of travel’ selection was completely nullified by the inability of the person who applies the little ‘reserved’ tickets to apply them to the correct seats!  On the type of train deployed between Exeter and Birmingham this reservation identifier is a scrolling L.E.D screen which shows whether a seat is available and for what portion of the overall route.  Quite clever, you might think.  However when the train is very crowded, and people arrive at variable times before departure, the whole process of boarding is slowed down while people stand in the aisle waiting to read the scrolling information.  This builds delay into the system at the point of origin but, en-route, people just want to get on the train before the doors close.  Even people with reservations, who presumably know which seat they should be in, get in the wrong carriage or through the wrong door and then have to negotiate their way (with their luggage) to the right place.  For those without reservations it ought to be possible for a simple Red/Green light to identify a seat available, for at least the next portion of the journey, from the carriage end.

Our journey to Birmingham was uneventful but understandably, given the season, crowded.  There was, predictably, a great deal of larger-than-normal holiday luggage, and many bags of awkward sized gifts which would not fit in the overhead shelf.  The baggage storage facilities on trains are barely equal to the demand at the busy times, but when overlaid by the frequently selfish and stupid behaviour of passengers, who insist on having their baggage as near as possible (even blocking the aisle or occupying a seat) is made totally inadequate.  Those few who try to be sensible, by placing bags under the seat in front, inevitably displace their feet and legs into the aisle.  On our journey the catering cart was unable to pass down the train, neither could passengers easily walk to where the cart was.  Someone left a huge case in the doorway when, two feet to the right, was an available floor level storage bay.  These are not uncommon experiences on the UK rail network on busy services at any time of year, not just at Christmas.

The train from Birmingham to Gobowen (an hour and a half) was actually going all the way to Holyhead (a ferry port).  It consisted of only 4 cars and was so overcrowded that people were standing from one end of the train to the other from the start.  People with reserved seats were simply unable to reach them.  One woman selfishly prevented anyone from taking the vacant seat allocated to her husband, despite the fact that he’d found a seat elsewhere and, by ‘phone from there, told her he didn’t need the one she was guarding!  Worse still, the train divided at Shrewsbury so those who needed to get to the other portion of the train had to try to get off, run down the platform, and then fight their way back onto the half-train with all the people already waiting on the platform at Shrewsbury.  It was an utter shambles: one old lady gave up and got off, hoping to catch a later train.  The delayed boarding caused a delayed departure, no doubt with consequences for many other trains in  the network.

None of this was well managed by the on-train staff who were in crisis-management mode, but in any event could not pass down the train to exert any influence.  This brings me to another point: managing passenger behaviour (or misbehaviour).  At its core the attraction of travel by train, rather than by road or domestically by air, is that you can go from city or town, place to place, in relative comfort and security and you have access to sanitation and refreshment.  You can guarantee a seat by reservation and the journey should be relatively stress free.  If this falls down in any way the journey becomes a matter of endurance, and any future journey an unattractive prospect.  Furthermore it cannot be safe having people standing everywhere, and escape routes blocked by bags.  There must be a concerted effort to eliminate it and one measure might be to have, at least some, ‘no standing’ services: you have a seat or you don’t travel.

There are (largely ineffectual) posters encouraging passengers to be considerate to others when using electronic devices.  If you should find yourself near someone who just talks incessantly, and loudly, is foul-mouthed, drunk or generally anti-social, a long journey becomes a nightmare.  All of this we experienced at some point.

There has to be a way for the train operators to pull people up, of saying “shape up or get off”.  I realise this puts the on-train staff in a difficult, potentially confrontational, position – but airlines manage it.  Of course, generally, there are more staff to react to an escalating situation on an aircraft, perhaps 2 or 3 for the equivalent of two train carriages.

In other countries where rail travel is widely used, anti-social behaviour isn’t tolerated and in some, Japan for example, it simply wouldn’t arise in the first place.  So is there a cultural dimension here: is Britain just more anarchic, selfish and anti-social?  Maybe we are, but it wasn’t always like this and it doesn’t need to be now.