The Early Bird Gets…


Each journey on the UK’s railways is more surreal than the last. This weekend I visited Newcastle by rail.

Anyone not familiar with present ticketing policies on the rail network will be astonished to learn that in order to buy a rail ticket comparable in price to easyJet – yes, to flying, that great evil in this age of global warming – it’s necessary to book several weeks beforehand. And even then, unless you are prepared to have the National Express website ready in a browser – on a fast internet connection, of course – and your fingers poised over the keyboard, ready for the moment the tickets for a particular date are released, you will find that the cheap fares are only available at odd times of day.

So I found myself waiting on platform 1 at Cambridge station for an 06:27 train last Friday morning in order to intercept the East Coast main-line train to Newcastle at Stevenage at 07:50 (OK, I could have caught the 06:57 but this wasn’t scheduled to reach Stevenage until 07:43 and experience tells me not to trust the operators quite that much).

What struck me was that Cambridge station was not teeming with commuters at the crack of dawn, and the 06:27 to King’s Cross via Stevenage was only a 4 carriage train and was practically empty until Stevenage, although a reasonable number of people boarded there.

Here’s some context. I quote some data that arrived via the cam.transport Yahoo! newsgroup:

“The Cambridge/KX line now has four of the six most overcrowded trains:

07:15 Cambridge London Kings Cross 176%
08:02 Woking London Waterloo 176%
07:45 Cambridge London Kings Cross 164%
17:45 London Kings Cross Kings Lynn 164%
08.22 Oxford London Paddington 159%
18:15 London Kings Cross Ely 154%”

See the DfT source document (pdf) for a little more detail.

Note particularly that the 07:15 and 07:45 trains will still be above capacity when they eventually complete plans to lengthen platforms and allow 12 rather than 8 carriage trains on the Cambridge line. This will increase capacity by 50% but these two trains are already running at 76% and 64% over capacity respectively!

It is also worth bearing in mind that the rush hour is what it says on the tin. I understand that passenger arrivals at King’s Cross (and other London termini) peak sharply between 8am and 9am.

Now, as a non-commuter I rarely travel to London on trains departing Cambridge before 10am, because that’s the earliest time at which I can use both a discount railcard (I have a Network Card which can be used from 10am) and “Saver” tickets (these are valid from 09:30, I believe).

This is insane.

I should point out that I was only catching the 06:27 to Stevenage last Friday because the price of the train towards London was included in the Cambridge to Newcastle fare. A few weeks ago I went to Birmingham for the day. I bought the cheapest outbound route available when I booked and found myself travelling on the 07:45 to King’s Cross, walking to Euston (my ticket would have paid for the tube, but who tubes that journey?) and taking the Virgin Express to Birmingham New Street, all for £14.50. That is, I was able to travel on one of the country’s busiest trains, and get a trip from London to Brum in the deal, for less than the cheapest single I could have bought to London at that time of day! As I said, surreal!

What I simply do not understand is why commuters are not given an added incentive to arrive in London before 8am (or after 9am, but it’s early travelling I want to talk about today). Why don’t “they” (for example) simply change the ticketing rules so that Saver tickets and/or railcards can be used on services arriving in London before 8am?

What’s more, ticket restrictions have recently been introduced in the afternoon as well. You can’t use Savers and railcards on trains to Cambridge (and many other destinations) departing King’s Cross between 16:30 and 19:00. For occasional rail travellers like me this is a huge inconvenience. The penalty for finding yourself at King’s Cross at the wrong time is either an additional fare of £17.90 or a wait of up to 2 and a 1/2 hours. For practical purposes I have to arrange journeys via London – such as on the Eurostar – around this restriction.

My point is that if commuters were given an added incentive to head to work earlier then they would naturally be able to leave earlier, stretching out the afternoon peak. Ticket restrictions might then be unnecessary in the afternoon, too.

It gets worse.

It just happens that on the way back from Newcastle on Monday I got chatting with an Argentinian family visiting the UK for the first time. They were on a flying visit to Cambridge before catching the Eurostar at (as I recollect) 07:30 the next morning. They therefore wanted to catch (probably) the 05:45 from Cambridge arriving King’s Cross at 06:35. I was too embarrassed to offer to help them buy a ticket. Even though the 05:45 would be practically empty, the journey was going to cost them £17.90 for each adult – probably more than their nights accommodation in Cambridge, courtesy of the YHA . OK, without a railcard and because of the perversity of a single costing nearly as much as a day return, they would only have been able to get the price down to £14.00 for a Saver. With a Network, Student or Senior railcard, though, a local would be able to save an additional third on that (actually only £11.80 according to the appalling UK national rail enquiries website) were the restriction on use before 8am lifted. And the cost would reduce even more for a return fare.

The policy objective is to get people to use the trains rather than fly. This weekend, travelling to Newcastle, I arrived by 11am on Friday and was back in Cambridge by 12am on Monday (despite various minor delays). If you travel early it doesn’t destroy the day. But when I choose to travel to the Continent I don’t have the option to travel early on the Eurostar. Because of the cost of travel to London, the price advantage of flying from Stansted is huge, for any (flight or Eurostar) departure before about midday.

It gets even worse.

You can’t even get a service from Cambridge to King’s Cross in time to catch the 06:30 or 05:25 Eurostar services to Paris (leaving 5 minutes walk away, from St Pancras), and even the 06:55 would be borderline. The earliest fast train from Cambridge to King’s Cross is the 05:45 arriving 06:35. You’d therefore have to hope the tediously slow 04:48 arrives on time at 06:21. And run.

Writing about rail travel in the UK is extremely difficult because there are so many shortcomings it’s too easy to get side-tracked (for example, I just logged a complaint about the enquiry website being slowed down to a ridiculous extent by ads – compare the Dutch equivalent!). As they say on motivational training courses, there are no problems, just opportunities! In that vein, there are so many opportunities to encourage people to travel by rail rather than air, as well as to improve the customer experience, whilst reducing fares by exploiting economies of scale, that it’s a crying shame the organisation – and government – is like a rabbit frozen in the headlights of an express.

Simply easing the ticket restrictions before the morning rush hour (and perhaps increasing capacity then) would relieve congestion on later commuter trains, increase leisure use of the railways and encourage a modal shift from air to rail for longer journeys.

I was going to say that encouraging travel from Cambridge before the rush hour would be a simpler solution than lengthening platforms to take 12-carriage trains. But, from the loading figures, it now seems the situation has been allowed to deteriorate so much that both measures are required. Yesterday. In a sane world these measures would have been taken already and I’d be discussing the obstacles to doubling the frequency of the service from every 30 minutes, as at present, to every 15.