Thursday, 2 August 2012

Letting the train take the strain.

During the past three weeks I've used the railway system to whiz up and down the UK three times.  There was a time when I'd have used the car these excursions but now I find motoring very boring, especially on motorways, and am also more aware of the environmental damage caused by one person travelling alone in a car, rather than with lots on a train. In any case, with the right ticket bought in advance, the train is  cheaper.

As with so many other things, it would help to understand the pricing systems the train companies use: different web-sites come up with different prices.  I find the best is called "Qjump."   For yesterday's journey from Margate, where I had enjoyed  the golden wedding celebration of some friends,  back to Leeds, the price for the single ticket (two singles being cheaper than a return) was £24.75.  This included Margate to London, a transfer from Victoria to King's Cross by underground, and then King's Cross to Leeds.  The  standard off-peak price for the first leg, Margate to London, is given as £31, so to go all the way to Leeds for less just doesn't make any sense.  Yes, I know all about profit maximisation through price discrimination, and can even draw graphs to prove it, and I do have a Senior Rail Card which gives me a discount, but the pricing policy seems to be crazy.

As with so much else, and in particular with the banks and insurance companions, I'd prefer a "fair" price rather than having to  spend time shopping around in what seems to be a lottery.

I try to book for the "quiet coach" and sometimes get it and sometimes don't.  I'm not sure which is worse: sitting in the non-quiet coach and listening to all the loud inconsequential yacketing on mobile phones, or sitting in the quite coach and seething with indignation because of those who ignore the rules and yacket-on anyway., and wondering whether or not to do a Linda Snell and admonish them.    I now never  pluck up the courage to intervene.  Some thirty years ago, when just returned from Papa New Guinea and not aware of the changed British culture, I was on a train to Manchester  and did point out very politely to a young man who lit a cigarette that we were in a no-smoking compartment.  He grinned and blew smoke in my face.  Although the carriage was crowded no-one came to my support: a reason why public behaviour has deteriorated. 

Even in the quiet coach one is still subjected to the interminable announcements welcoming new "customers" (why not "passengers?") telling us where we're going,  what's on sale in the buffet car, not to leave luggage in the aisles and remember to take it all with us when we "alight." (Where else is this word still used?  What do ESL speakers and hearers make of it?).  The only really useful information is the next destination, now called a "station stop."   This can be given  electronically on signboards, as it is on the Underground, and this would make the whole journey more relaxing.

After each "station stop" the "on-board crew" offer  to give any help or assistance that may be required, but never give any indication as to where they are to be found.  On one occasion when help was predictably needed  no "crew" was to be seen.  I and many others had reservations for "Coach E" but there was no such coach: they  skipped straight from "D" to "F".  In a version of M Hulot's Holiday we deprived lugged our luggage to the front, in case our coach was there but out of order, and then back to the beginning in case we'd missed it, and then stood on the platform in puzzlement.  Eventually news percolated through that coach E ticket holders with  seat reservations up to number 39 were seated in Coach F, and numbers above 39 in Coach G.  This information was then repeated over the loudspeaker system inside the train at every "station stop" though how people still on the platforms were supposed to hear it escapes me.  The simple solution of having a member of staff standing on  the platform at the spot where our missing coach should be seems to have eluded the  railway management.

Finally, if we must endure all these announcements, I wish someone would tell the announcers that the word "aitch" has no "h" on it.

But enough of these trivialities. Our main lines are swift, safe and reliable, the refurbished King's Cross is a great improvement, if not even now quite as posh as Euston or St Pancras, and I look for ward to the £99b expenditure which will bring our local network up to a similar standard.

PS. Just to prove that I'm not entirely devoted to "grumpy old man" observations,  because of the Olympics there are loads and loads of people in London, in  pink clothes or high-visibility jackets, all terribly anxious to be helpful.

PPS.  But if Boris Johnson is such a clever-clogs, why can't he arrange for Central London to become a "no-fly" zone during the excellent performances at the Globe Theatre, so that  we are not distracted  from them  by the racket of over-flying aircraft?


  1. I have givem up a car altogether and travel almost all the time by train and bus, when I don't walk or cycle. On those very very rare occasions that I can't get there by public transport, then car hire is cheap.

    Try it Peter, it's easy, the environment benefits and you end up much fitter!

  2. I'm sure you're right. My car is now over nine years old and, rather than replace it, I shall hang on, use it as little as possible (like you I walk or cycle whenever sensible for short distances and use the buses for slightly longer ones)and, when it is no longer serviceable, I hope I shall have the sense to use taxis.

  3. I have mused several times over the word "alighting" appearing on platforms and worry what foreigners might make of it - something to do with smoking? - as they've almost certainly never encountered it before in their English studies. I equate it with being asked to send my "remittance". (What?)

  4. Why use QJump to buy rail tickets, when such third-party retailers usually charge a commission? In any case, they are never cheaper than the train operator.

    My advice is to book direct with East Coast (whether or not you're using East Coast trains). You get a 10% discount on all fares (on East Coast's own trains) simply by booking online. In addition, if you join East Coast's 'Rewards' scheme, you earn points for any tickets you buy (whether or not for travel on East Coast's own trains), which you can then exchange for free tickets.

    The easiest way to find the cheapest tickets for any journey is to begin with National Rail's website ( It is not unusual to find that the cheapest available fare is in first class!

    1. I'm highly honoured that you're reading my blog, Simon. In the past I've used National Rail's website initially, to get some idea of the fares, and then gone to Leeds City Station, where the staff could usually beat National Rail's best price. However, I now find that Qjump also beats the National Rail price, so I use than as it saves a trip into Leeds. However, I'll take your advice and have made a note of the East Coast site advertised on the back of my last reservation label. (