I experienced perfect punctuality across a series of railway journeys earlier this month, but it’s still not as easy as it could be to work on board trains

 

wifiontrainsTrain time as productive working time: The vision doesn’t always match the reality

 

Crisis? What crisis? Well may the portents of doom and gloom be claiming that the UK rail industry hasn’t been in such a bad shape since the post-Hatfield meltdown, but I went on a mammoth tour over three days earlier this month and not a single train was late – not even on South West Trains! Apart from a blip on London Underground my trip across major swathes of our nation was punctual, seamless and half-decent really, even if not ideal for your average businessman.

This was the type of trip that I’d have salivated about in my trainspotting youth, but alas I’d been so under the cosh work-wise that I’d earmarked it in my diary as a golden opportunity to get on top of stuff – finish reports, read documents, clear the in-tray. My ability to function over the coming weeks depended on being able to work properly over these three days on the train. This trip was about more than just shunting me around the country – it would make or break my month.

SWT gets me into London dead on time and without fuss, only for there to be a nine-minute wait for the first train on the Northern line in the height of the peak, so I make my way on the interminable hike to the Jubilee line platforms where both downward escalators are out of order. Changing at Green Park, I arrive at King’s Cross and it is on Virgin Trains East Coast to Peterborough that I make my way on a template journey – great announcements, friendly staff, cleanliness, free and functioning Wi-Fi for 15 minutes (which was better than nothing).

After a quick meeting at a company I run on the outskirts of town, I am back on the train, this time to Norwich. It’s hard to pick holes with East Midlands Trains and the punctuality is again top notch both from Peterborough to Norwich and thence returning to travel back and beyond all the way to Stoke.

You would, though, think that on such mammoth East to West journeys as their services from Norwich to Manchester that there would, in this day and age, be a little more comfort for your average businessman – plug sockets, free Wi-Fi and maybe some catering. Had I not remembered to power up my laptop, this five-hour journey would have been totally futile – five crucial hours that for your high-powered Walty Mitty, such as I, can be the difference between winning and losing. My connection between Nottingham and Derby is a short one and when an HST arrives, my heart skipped a beat as surely I had the opportunity to charge my phone for the journey to Stoke, but alas no – not even on this premium route is there a plug socket!

If I had a vision of the ticket office of the future it would be my experience the following morning at Stoke. Firstly it is open plan and secondly the member of staff actually isn’t your average railway person thrown into a modern day retail environment. He looks and acts as though he’d spent his career in a blue-chip customer services setting, but better still, his knowledge of ticketing products is intricate.

Without boring you with the detail, for one crucial leg of my journey, my beleaguered PA had forgotten to book my ticket and this would mean me having to organise the most complicated array of tickets just to ensure that any conductor could make sense of my complicated itinerary. I am given an excess ticket, a single, a return and in fact all sorts of combinations that somehow help me to Aintree and back via Birmingham without ever needing to touch Stoke again and all for around 40 quid, peak-time. This chap is polished, smart, friendly and everything he did was slick, assured, courteous and trying to get me the cheapest deal. All this in a bright, swish customer-driven ambience – I’ve seen the future and it’s Stoke on Trent (not often you hear that phrase really).

It’s onto London Midland this time and the train is freezing cold as it chunters its way to Crewe where I’m over the platform for another service, from the same operator, which is the complete opposite – a furnace. My tickets have not been checked since our train left Norwich the previous night and there’s been no checks on either London Midland service and I don’t think I can count the one that occurred on the gateline to the Merseyrail platform at the fantastic Liverpool South Parkway station. A bright, smiley, young female is standing holding the side gate wide-open, as she listens to a radio next to where she stands. She looks friendly but makes no effort to even move the gates back and forth.

Just as I wait to board our train, I overhear a cheesy conversation between two work colleagues – it’s as though I’m watching a Merseyrail TV advert. They both look like models – good looking, family man type tells attractive young female how he has discovered travelling by train to work and it saves him money he can spend on books for his children and gets him home earlier each night to read to them. Glamorous lady responds by saying that it has changed her life too – she goes to the gym in the morning before boarding the train because she can rely on it always getting her to work on time and she feels far more energised about her working day now. This is gruesome stuff and even the swish, ice-cool and eloquent Merseyrail MD Jan Chaudhry would be cringing if he could witness this unnerving, un-staged propaganda.

Anyway, I arrive at Liverpool Central and have noticed a trend. At each customer touch point there are ambassadors making eye contact and guiding me on the next stage of my journey. I know the Merseyrail mob have majored on getting their staff to play a hosting role (I even helped them a little on their way), but this is actually happening and it’s the outsourced cleaners who are doing as much of the greeting as the security officers – one such is standing at the top of the escalator, smiles at me and says “hello, have a great day”. What the heck is going on here? This is the kind of vision you see in rail franchise bids, the kind of tantalising promise that the bid authors deep down sense may never happen in the real world on the frontline.

I eventually find my way to Aintree, disappointed only by the conductor not going through to check tickets but texting on his phone instead. Still, at least, he is visible in the carriage and not hiding in the back cab. That having been said, my ticket has not, in any shape or form, been checked by anyone since my train passed the floodlights at Norwich City FC yesterday evening (and no sign of a catering trolley, either – thank goodness I have my packet of McVities Fruit Shortcake biscuits to keep me going). So, much for all those over-egged, sophisticated revenue protection strategies that all these TOCs relish producing, with their scientific formulas for ticketless travel that might have been worked up on the back of an unstamped ticket.

I’ve come a long way for my day job meeting and am a little incandescent when my two colleagues are embarrassingly late, both having been delayed in their cars coming a few miles from Manchester. I’m offered a lift as penance back into Liverpool but I decline it – another trip on Merseyrail will do me nicely and I’m guided again every step of the way – polite, fulsome directions across the interchange at Moorfields and a grin on the gateline at Lime Street. This lot mean business, even if they’ve still got those horrible, punitive signs on trains with a list of “Do Not’s”, telling folk what they can’t do on-board.

I get the train from Liverpool to Crewe, stopping off to get the ticket for the next part of my journey from a machine so I can carry onto London direct rather than via Birmingham. I’ve worked so hard on my travels that I’ve nodded off all the way to Crewe then again as we ventured further south, despite the seats on Virgin being far from comfy for folk with bony bums such as I.

Nonetheless, I only emerge from my slumber twice in the journey – the first time when we grind to an unscheduled stop at Lichfield and where I see a policewoman walk down the platform and then at Watford Junction, for what again is an impromptu stop. This time, right past my window, a group of familiar footballers walk in purple tracksuits – Joe Hart, Raheem Sterling, Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane – blimey, the entire England team have been on my train.

At the front is Roy Hodgson and assistant Ray Lewington leading the way, carrying baggage. They both look unassuming, haggard, plain normal, under pressure and stifled – the spitting image of your bog standard bus MDs in one of the big transport corporates, whereas the footballers had that over-confident, looking down their nose swagger of some of their counterparts in rail, especially Rooney who gives me a funny look as I peer through the window. Perhaps he is aghast at spotting the Travel Tester.

I’ve now sussed out what that stop at Lichfield was all about, we’d picked up the England team from their not-too-far-away training ground at St George’s and we were now dropping them off en route to Wembley. I bet they won’t have got on London Midland the rest of the way to Wembley Central. I doubt they had their ticket checked in any case – mind you neither did I for most of my trip. Nonetheless, despite our special stop, we still get back to Euston smack on time and then I mince my way home to Shepperton and courtesy of SWT. I also arrive right on schedule.

Apart from a bit of patchiness on London Underground on the outward journey, this was an amazingly punctual journey, not a single missed connection or need for an apologetic announcement of any sort and not even a bunch of over-paid, pampered Premier League primadonnas were going to get in the way of this unblemished record.

VERDICT:

From a punctuality and reliability perspective, this trip was a shining example to business travellers that rail is number 1. However, when it came to comfort and the ability to get a lot of work done, it was pretty lacking. A third rate spiv such as I can put up with anything, but I’d struggle to see real captains of industry warming to some of the barren working conditions on our trains.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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