Friday, October 06, 2006


The Euston Hokey-Cokey

I should use public transport more than I do, since it is in plentiful supply and pretty reliable around these parts. But today’s experience once again reminds me why we won’t solve the problems of congestion and pollution caused by excessive car use until we start making public transport more appealing. I was again reminded that, fairly often, riding on a train is a lot like journeying on a clanking old cattle-truck, only with more people talking rubbish on mobile phones.

Working for Oldham MBC isn’t the most glamorous job in creation, but occasionally I do get to travel down to London, and yesterday was one of those days. Today was my return journey, and due to the off-peak ticket I’d purchased, the 15.05 was the last train I could get without paying over £100 extra or waiting until very late indeed.

I have had to catch this train before, and am always amazed by the lengths that the train companies appear to go to to make the entire experience as unpleasant as possible for the passengers.

First there is the trial of actually boarding the train at all. For some reason, the signs for trains on popular routes like London-Manchester don’t indicate the correct platform until just a few minutes before departure time. As the seconds tick by, prospective passengers assemble by the hundreds on the station concourse, maintaining a hawk-like watch on the departures screen, waiting for the moment when the platform is revealed. The reason for the steadfast observance is because at the very second that the information is unveiled, every one of them must rush towards the relevant platform to secure a precious seat before they are all filled.

Coping with the need for this mad dash to the train can be attempted in a number of ways, all of which I have observed during recent trips down South:

First there are those who maintain an air of casual nonchalance, seemingly uninterested in the platform, and munching on something bought from the ubiquitous Cornish Pasty outlets which throng mainline rail stations these days. But do not be fooled by their casual gait. They are in fact permanantly watching the information board from the corner of their unblinking eye. The crust of a pasty can be, and is, used as a weapon to bash people out of the way once the platform information is made available.

Then there are those, like me, who engage in what I have termed the “Euston Hokey-Cokey,” an elaborate dance involving all four limbs, the aim of which is to gain a slight advantgae. I try to second-guess the station staff by calculating the likelihood of a particular platform being the right one, and then I make a small movement towards it, perhaps using only my left leg. Anything more obvious would alert fellow passengers and put me at a disadvantage. Anything less and I could start from behind and never stand a chance. However, as other trains come and go, and platforms become available that were once occupied, the thinking changes, and in comes the left leg, out goes the right. Up goes the right arm, down comes the left. All very confusing. And difficult to do whilst eating a pasty and holding an umbrella, as I discovered today.

But the people I feel sorry for are those that don’t know what’s going on at all. Often confused with those in the ifrst category, these people’s lack of concern is actually genuine. And deadly. WHetehr they think that the crowd of people on the concourse are there for the sheer delight of basking in the ambiance of a trian station, or whether they are just so excited by the journey as to not notice them at all, they have no idea what's going on. At the moment of truth, as the station concourse empties like a giant bath tub with the plug pulled out, these poor souls are left to stare blankly towards WHSmith, before glancing in horror at the newly revealed platform sign, and joint the back of a very, very long queue.

Once on the train, we are presented with a uniquely British problem. On a 8 car train with about 1,000 passengers, most of whom have scrambled to catch the last off-peak train they can, why on earth are half the carriages First Class, and therefore empty?

Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to stick a few less first class carriages in there, or a couple more standard class ones? I know us plebs aren’t worth much, but surely we can do better than sitting in the aisles whilst 200 First Class seats are empty?

I know I joke, but if people are serious about coaxing car-users onto public transport, it’s the little things that count. Punctuality is much better now, and that’s great. But I don’t care if the train arrives on time if I have to stand for the whole journey because there aren’t enough carriages. And I don’t care if it leaves on time if I have to beat old ladies out of the way with my suitcase just to get a seat, as 700 people who’ve been left standing on a concourse for half an hour sprint like maniacs towards the train three minutes before it leaves.

At £57 return, it's barely any cheaper to get the train than to drive. So comfort and convenience have to be the swaying factors. Running to catch a train that I'm half an hour early for, then standing up the whole way home, is neither comfortable nor convenient. It's just hugely annoying.

I know that trains are more popular now, but it's expriences like this that put people off public transport as a whole. And it can't be that difficult to sort out, surely?

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