“I’d like to apologise for the large volume of customers choosing to travel with us today”, announced the tinny voice from the train’s public address system.
I shrank into my seat, shaking my head at the irony and illumination within such a short address. This class announcement, mis-spoken or not, was the highlight of a recent trip on a commuter train into Manchester. It sums up the problems with British public transport quite neatly.
Never believe that there is a shortage of rail commuters, despite the urgings of the Green lobby for us all to make that our preferred means of transport. Quite the contrary, rail-commuters are out there in sweaty, germ-friendly abundance.
What there is, is a shortage of trains; or at least carriages linked-up to moving trains. You know carriages with bum-seeking-seats.
The commuting habits of the British public will not change until the rail companies accept that over-utilisation is a good thing only in their spreadsheets, and even then only when judged by the narrow-minded metric of the profit-margin.
Nothing is guaranteed to deter the prospective rail commuter more than the typical early morning rail experience and it’s worth remembering that today’s prospective rail commuters are the passengers of tomorrow; or more likely they aren’t.
Assuming its a Monday our commute begins with a wait in a 15 metre queue whilst the single on-duty ticket officer deals with an assortment of rail card renewals and route queries. In the absence of an automated alternative you stand, clock-watching and stressing until it’s your turn to pay.
Relieved when all you want is a return ticket the ticket-officer quickly completes the transaction. You are left to reflect that at least queueing has kept you in the warm and passed most of the time until the now delayed train arrives.
Arriving 5-minutes late, miraculously conforming to some complex average trip time formula that fails to impact on the rail-operators’ subsidy, the train comprises four carriages.
Having squeezed-on and grabbed the last remaining seat – the one by the toilet, yes – you are then free to complete your journey in an overheated carriage under the meerkat like scrutiny of those unfortunate enough to have to stand for the whole of the 45-minute journey.
It is not a comfortable time; physically or mentally.
After two more stops the aisles are completely full and people are rapidly becoming more intimately acquainted in the boarding areas by the doors as people attempt to shoe-horn themselves in whilst grumblng about other people not moving down the already crammed aisles.
It was at this point that the aforementioned announcement crackled out of the speakers. Whilst seemingly an apology, it was clear who it felt was to blame; why all those people who wanted to get onto the train; the customers.
I’ve no idea how much more it would cost to run a 6- or 8-carriage train at peak-times; or the logistical dilemma that it poses. I just know that it makes sense to do it.
What the safety legislation must say about the kind of over-crowding allowed on these trains I cannot imagine. Whatever it is it either comes from the school of the Barking Mad, or is completely ignored. And whilst this train – from Preston to Manchester – was uncomfortably packed, it was no where near as bad as some I’ve been on leaving Lime Street Station in Liverpool.
So, in addition to passenger comfort (and I’m not talking of indian head massages or anything, just a seat) there’s also safety to consider.
Without pressure from the consumer and the government it is unlikely that this crazy situation will change.
And it’s no use shaking our heads at programmes showing passengers seated-on or clinging-to train rooves in the sub-continent. Only the British weather and the necessity for glazed windows, leading to a consequent absence of footholds, prevents such scenarios from occurring regularly on the 7:15 from Chorley to Manchester Piccadilly. Although those slippy leather-soled shoes from BHS, coupled with Darwinian natural-selection may also have played a part in keeping British trains clinger-free.
So, now is the time to unite and demand more carriages, a seat for all.
Write your MP (www.theyworkforyou.com) and your rail-carrier. Or send them an email link to this post if you must; but most of all let them know.
Let them know, sitters, standers and clingers-on; We won’t stand for not sitting anymore!
Anyone up for a boycott public transport day? Let’s all drive to work. If that doesn’t bring the country to a halt, nothing will.