Train Stress and the 20:52 from King’s Cross to Cambridge

I’ve mentioned before that it is possible to write an essay about every UK rail journey. I have something of a backlog – I hope soon to find time to explain to the world the horrors of weekend engineering work – but want to give yesterday’s journey a mention.

I went on a day-trip to Birmingham, taking in the National Trust Back to Back houses and the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Both well worth-while.

But as ever with UK trains, as much emotional energy is expended on the journey as at the destination.

I bought advance tickets for £8 outward (11:03 Euston to 12:27 Birmingham New Street), £14:50 return (19:10 Brum to 20:34 Euston) weeks ago. There are no reservations (phew!) on Cambridge trains so you can take any you want to London. This in itself is daft, since, if I’d wanted to, I could have added to the crush on the country’s most overcrowded train, the 07:15 from Cambridge – incidentally shortly to be increased from 8 carriages to 12, which will still not be enough for everyone to have a seat, as passengers might expect, given the extortionate fares at commuting times.

I passed on the 07:15 yesterday morning and instead took the 09:15, which actually goes at 09:20 (virtually all the other fast trains are on the quarter hour in both directions), since keeping things simple for the travelling public is not very high up First Capital Connect’s priority list.

The fares were cheap, but this is not the product I want. Nor do the vast majority of the travelling public. What we require are reasonably priced walk-on fares.

The point, of course, is that the penalty for missing the train applicable to your ticket is severe. I read somewhere of someone having to fork out £200 for a new ticket on the Birmingham train. So one reason I took a train (the 09:20) to arrive at King’s Cross (a few minutes walk from Euston where my Birmingham train departed at 11:03) shortly after 10am was to minimise the possibility of missing my connection.

The stress continued through the day, of course, as everything had to be timed to ensure I was at the station in good time for the 19:10. All this, of course, adds considerably to what I term the effective journey time. You end up creating a lot of dead time making sure you don’t miss the sodding trains.

But Virgin managed to increase my train stress levels still further. Get this: when I looked at my train tickets the evening before I saw that the reservations were correct (I’m sure I checked these when the tickets arrived the day after I bought them online). But somehow the actual Cambridge to Birmingham tickets – referred to by number on the reservations – both said “From: Cambridge; To Birmingham”. How could this happen? It seems that when you book tickets online they’re not, as you might suppose, printed automatically. The operation, it appears, is not entirely controlled by computer. No, room for human error has been allowed. I strongly suspect someone takes your online booking and types it again into the ticketing system!

Reflecting on this, and the melee of ticket inspectors at Euston, a cynic might conclude that the UK railways are in reality a very expensive job creation scheme. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Anyway, more stress, as I had to check at Euston that Virgin Trains weren’t going to get arsey and leave me stuck in Brum without a valid return ticket. Then I had to get a replacement ticket issued at Birmingham New Street, which required supervision by a supervisor apparently, though I was careful to explain the problem carefully and the staff were reasonably reasonable – though an expression indicating he’d scented blood flickered across the face of the ticket inspector on the return journey, before I wheeled out my careful explanation again, in my most polite deferential manner. Advice: keep on the right side of these guys!

Still, the trains ran moreorless to time. The 19:10 left Brum a little late, but must have arrived at Euston a little early, as I reached King’s Cross at 20:42, which would have been pushing it if we’d pulled into Euston at the scheduled time of 20:34. Perhaps I should explain how such an early arrival can happen. The point, of course, is that the train timetables are padded. The LSE reported recently (pdf) that “on many routes… it is now no faster to commute into London than in the immediate post-war period, and it is substantially slower than in the 1970s”. I suspect a large part of the reason is an unintended consequence: my guess is that the rail companies have more to gain from ensuring their punctuality targets are achievable than from attempting to speed passengers to their destination as fast as the expensive technology will allow.

Luckily, then, I was at King’s Cross in time to catch the 20:45 fast train to Cambridge. Except there isn’t a 20:45. I took the 20:52 slow train, but this arrives at Cambridge after 10pm, around about the same time as the 21:15. In other words after 20:15 there is effectively only an hourly service to Cambridge. If you can’t control when you arrive at King’s Cross very accurately – assume you arrive there at a random time – then your average effective journey time is 15 minutes longer once the xx:45 fast trains stop running. Explanation: earlier in the evening you have to wait an average 15 minutes for a fast train; after 20:15 you have to wait an average 30 minutes. Catching a slow train at 20:52 or 21:52 or 22:52 gains you virtually nothing (especially as these trains are even slower than the xx:52 services during the day).

Of course, I could hardly argue that a 20:45, 21:45, 22:45, 23:45 and so on should be operated if there were no demand. But there is. Even with the current service, when a lot of people must choose to carry on what they’re doing in London a little longer to catch the fast 21:15 rather than rush for the 20:52 – heck, a lot of people must choose not to take the train to or via London so often in the first place because the evening return service is so poor – the 20:52 is packed when it leaves London and at least half full (that’s a hundred or two passengers, paying probably at least £6.00 on average for the return leg of their journey – do the math) when it reaches Cambridge.

And, to rub salt in the wounds, the 20:52 only has 4 carriages. Last night people were standing when it left London, although I managed to get a seat near the toilet. Luxury. To me this represents a complete breakdown of public control of the train operating companies, because it is completely unnecessary to reduce the train to 4 carriages. The line supports 8. No doubt the train company saves a few pounds, but this must be far exceeded by the cost in passenger inconvenience and discomfort. It seems to me it would be fairly simple to sort this out. Just apply a levy to the ticket revenue for any trains over 70% full. Above this level the passenger experience degrades. You have to sit in seats you don’t want to, couples and groups can’t always sit together and so on.

I simply can’t understand why politicians aren’t falling over each other to propose solutions to the mess that is the UK railways. Don’t they want our votes?

It’s simply a matter of setting the rules to prevent the operating companies short-changing passengers and to give them the right incentives – sticks and carrots – to run the service people want.