Let’s be honest, commuting by train was gruelling and expensive
– and a belligerent ‘take it or leave it’ railway made things worse

Commuting was like a daily endurance test

Grant Shapps called it right when he indicated that the railway’s relevance had diminished such that strike action didn’t have the impact it would have had pre-Covid, as many customers now have an alternative choice. Indeed, as I conducted a Teams call whilst sucking on a Calipo in the lovely summer weather in my pagola last week, I reflected on the folly of commuting and wondered how we ever did it in the first place!

It’s difficult for today’s youth to comprehend the difference between working patterns today and when I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. For those of you old enough, cast your mind back to one of those quaint but antiquated canned tins that were VEPs or EPBs on Southern Region. Commuters were herded into cold, smelly, noisy compartments to sit in hushed, ‘stiff upper lip’ silence, all dark suited and booted, funereal style, with the impending doom and gloom of rigid working life ahead in the City. At most people read the morning paper on the way in and everyone read either the Evening Standard or Evening News on their way home. Those grim commutes – same train, same day for years on end, the sound of slamming doors in unison, audible from far away as trains arrived and departed. Commuting ensued against a background of negativity, of frequent rail strikes, the spectre of safety mishaps and tragedies, of IRA threats and bombings and none of the entertainment of phones, iPads, music and films to keep us occupied and no folk dressed in more relaxed tieless ‘mufti’ attire. There’d also be none of the convivial chitter chatter you hear on trains now.

It’s difficult for today’s youth to comprehend the difference between working patterns today and when I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s

My Dad commuted on the same train – the 08:05 from Orpington to Cannon Street and 18:03 return for 25 years and likewise the same service from Lower Sydenham for the previous decade in his career. He was no different to others with his set routines and my earliest memories were of Mum and I meeting him at Orpington station. Of course, there were no mobile phones to tell us if he wasn’t on the train, but we just knew he would be in any case. Routine ruled okay back then, he stayed in one company for 25 years!

As ‘recently’ as 1990, when I started travelling to University College London, the rigidity and somberness of commuting life prevailed. I remember vividly feeling down leaving my house on the morning of the Cannon Street rail crash in 1991 – my first day back to commuting after the Christmas break. I boarded in the middle of the train because I believed that it would be the safest if there were an incident. I didn’t realise till I saw the newspaper billboard that evening at Leicester Square that there had been a train crash and that it had been the train I’d boarded that morning and got off at London Bridge, with the fatalities and injuries in my carriage. I knew people so traumatised they never travelled to Cannon Street again and others couldn’t leave their bedrooms for years. Dad was involved in a derailment at Cannon Street years earlier, with two carriages overhanging the Thames.

Onto today and I believe that commuting became so gruelling and expensive that it just imploded. In many respects, it has been a ticking time-bomb. Young parents who both work and have no family nearby were always going to struggle in a world of commuting long distances. In fairness, the likes of Connex with their nurseries at Victoria and Brighton were an optimistic and ambitious effort to pre-empt this gradual disinclination for working parents to commute. However, no transport or social think-tank has properly come up with a better solution.

Covid blew up that time bomb. Looking back, with the benefit of post pandemic perspective and hindsight, it’s unfathomable how we ever commuted en masse. Did we ever think it palatable to part with such a whopping percentage of our net salary – often up to a third, including exorbitant car parking costs – just for the privilege of getting to and from the office, and it taking sometimes three or four hours out of our day, herded like cattle in overcrowded conditions too? Remember also, the inconvenience of buying tickets – the humongous queues at tickets offices and then the indignity foisted on you by heavy handed revenue protection techniques which treated bona fide customers who’d shelled out thousands on season tickets as criminals if they accidentally lost their ticket, left it at home or fell asleep one stop beyond their destination. If staff were a problem, fellow commuters weren’t much better either – the bossy shrills of “can you move down the train!” or the foul smells and the boozed up hoodlums boarding slow trains home if you were working late.

The attitude of the railway in terms of the service specification seemed similarly designed to deliberately wind up commuters

The belligerence of the industry too, for so long, selling season tickets with no real flexibility, where weeklies were the lowest denomination; this came back to bite big time. As life moved on, the benefit of being able to use your season ticket to travel for leisure at weekends lessened – people became more discerning, travelling all week was bad enough, was it really a benefit to head into London at weekends, particularly if the internet brought with it home entertainment and e-commerce? So too, the upmarket café and restaurant culture, with such a range of eateries from all parts of the world, wasn’t confined to the capital but spread into the suburbs.

The attitude of the railway in terms of the service specification seemed similarly designed to deliberately wind up commuters. Dad’s commuting years, saw a 10-minute frequency of services to London from Orpington, non-stop too, three times an hour, but then some Clever Dick around the late-1980s, decided to cease all fast services in the peak period, unless you lived one stop away in little-used Chelsfield. So, it was pretty well ‘all stations only’, doubling the journey times, yet off-peak, when less folk wanted to travel and even less had time pressures, we enjoyed a great fast service. It seemed a textbook case study of how to willingly antagonise the most loyal, high-yield customers, quite possibly because the Sevenoaks or Tunbridge Wells toffs hated us chavs ruining their serenity when the train stopped at Orpington. More probably some quirky rail enthusiast, promotion-seeking train planner thought that efficiencies could be achieved by us lot missing out.

This practice was commonplace all over commuter land. Unsurprisingly, borne of accumulated dissatisfaction, local commuter action groups and associations were formed to pressure management into making changes. Each year, however, calls to alter the timetable, for it to be, not unreasonably, more customer-focused, were met with a triumphant rebuttal or at best some feeble concession, like one extra train, a minor retiming or a stop somewhere new and a disdainful sense that we should all be so grateful. ‘Dr No’ was the nickname coined by user groups for one such planner, wheeled out at meetings by BR and then the TOC he joined. In this kind of environment, beleaguered or turned-up-nose railway managers sat on the front tables at parish halls at user group meetings, deflecting criticism from the audience, often poorly so and sometimes in an inflammatory way (the first one I went to in the 1980s saw the general manager furiously threaten to walk out when challenged). The whole set-up just propagated the ‘them and us’ attitude that had gestated between the railway and its commuters – those who should have been its most valued customers.

I genuinely believe that the backlash against commuting is because previously it has played the role of the enemy, for the reasons I’ve listed above, all of which are spawned by an arrogant, almost aggressive, contemptuous and dare I say, provocative, approach towards core ‘bread and butter’ customers. If I hadn’t been a trainspotter but someone with an ambivalence towards train travel, I think I would have hated the rail industry and celebrated it now getting its comeuppance. Had your average commuter seen some of the arrogant, ego-centric aloof rail industry managers that I witnessed as an ‘insider’ (a not insignificant minority, I might add), their dislike towards the sector would have intensified. And on the coalface, as Dad regales, BR staff were ‘bolshie’ towards commuters – something I can testify through many ‘incidents’ on my daily travels, including three times being physically threatened by railway employees.

There was a time, though, when working from home seemed bizarre. I recall in 2005, when I was at South Eastern Trains, someone in Network Rail thought it acceptable to allow an agency to hand out leaflets on Cannon Street station extolling the benefits of ‘home-working’. I was as much surprised as angry – I honestly didn’t think this was a concept that genuinely existed. Working from home was something you might do only once in a while. I remember my boss at London Underground in 1997 allowing me to do so for one day only and then untrustingly rollocking me for not proactively showing him the fruits of my labour.

Back to last week’s strikes and I think the discomfort for customers wasn’t as intolerable as some in rail might kid themselves. Many customers would have welcomed it. Their employer would have given them a free pass to work from home and recharge the batteries. It was warm weather, but no need to face the broken air conditioning or the inevitable heat-induced points or signal failures. Some probably did Teams calls in the garden, others bunked off. For me, my biggest irritation was missing out on two evening cricket matches – but I was able to watch for free online on a Livestream, with a cold drink in hand on a deckchair in the garden.

The industry has been dealt the all-time wake-up call and to an extent, deservedly so

There’s no easy solution but for starters the railway needs to present itself as a friend. Deliberately or ham-fistedly so, the adversarial approach that has been part and parcel of the way in which it has managed relationships with commuters for generations needs to be obliterated. The industry has been dealt the all-time wake-up call and to an extent, deservedly so. A reset is required and a blank sheet of paper approach should be taken, creating a product specification from scratch as though commuting is an entirely new concept that never existed before. From fixing the fares (and not just talking about doing so) and improving the on-board comfort and all-round experience, everything is on the ‘must do’ list. Marketing through to signage, information – indeed, all customer messaging should be softer, more conciliatory and less ‘taking it for granted’. It should resonate with the public whilst extolling the benefits of travelling to and from work as an overall wider lifestyle package and be sympathetic in approach, as should the whole way in which staff and managers interact with customers. Radical timetable changes are necessary. Most of all, though, the proposition should appeal.

In Dad’s day, the daily commute was dismal, even if he probably didn’t realise it at the time, nor looking back. The genial old buffer still regales it affectionately, but maybe through rose tinted specs. His uncomplaining generation lived through the war and anything was tolerable after that! Today, customer service is King and commuters have higher expectations in return for the thousands they shell out each year. They also now have a choice and the era when the railway could take a ‘like it or lump it’ attitude and get away with it is over. Forever more.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 29 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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