/ Travel & Leisure

Are you on a snow-go rail route?

Train driving in snow

Did you get to work ok today? Something of a silly question, since most of the UK’s covered in snow. But if your journey involved public transport, a lack of travel information may have made it a lot more miserable.

I managed to make it in today – not bad, given how few trains were running.

But before you write this off as another ‘train services are rubbish in the snow’ rant, let me assure you it’s not. (Mind you, I can’t help thinking how reliable Berlin’s trains were when I visited in heavy snow last January, but that’s another story.)

When I woke up this morning and looked out at the snow, I fully expected – even understood – that train services would be limited today. What I wasn’t prepared for was the complete absence of any information about what was going on.

No information when you need it

My local station had no staff, no announcements and nothing on the platform displays this morning. Passengers were getting information from each other – and the poor woman in the coffee shop was being forced to double up as a station master as everyone quizzed her in desperation.

I tried to be sensible and look online before I left the house, but National Rail simply informed me that trains would be subject to delay. You don’t say.

Others had obviously found a different online source, as they were under the impression that trains were running through our station, just a little late. In the 25 minutes that I was stood there, not one train came through, so I find that hard to believe.

I don’t mind waiting for trains in the snow, but it’s good to know whether any will actually turn up. It doesn’t take much to make some announcements to manage passengers’ expectations and help us decide if we should try an alternative route – which is what I eventually did.

What should passengers expect?

Am I demanding too much? Is it really unrealistic to expect some kind of communication in such extreme conditions? I asked our resident transport expert, Richard Dilks, to see what he thinks:

“To have to rely on word of mouth in the age of GPS is crackers. If the National Rail website can at least try to show live arrival and departure data for all UK stations, why can’t that be attempted at those stations? The train companies and signallers know where the trains are at any moment – so why can’t we?

“The Office of Rail Regulation today announced it will send out teams to assess standards of information when services are disrupted and promises to publish the results. Meanwhile, Passenger Focus’ National Passenger Survey showed a satisfaction rating of just 35% with information about delays. I couldn’t agree more, but also can’t help feeling it will be a while before rail companies catch up with the speed of information we’ve all become used to.”

So there you have it, I’m not going barmy. And with a whole lot more snow ready to heap itself on the nation, rail operators need to clean up their communications. Unfortunately, as Richard points out, they’re unlikely to catch up as quickly as we’d like.


It’s amazing isn’t it. Here we are in, the so-called Information Age and what is the biggest complaint when it comes to travel delays – no information! You’d have thought companies would’ve learnt by now but, sadly, practising how to deal with a crisis is often seen as an unnecessary overhead, eating into private companies’ valuable margins. After all, what do they care? They pretty much have a captive market and, because they’re all as bad as one another, there’s no real incentive for us to use an alternative next time.

Unfortunately, one of the Ten Commandments of being British is “thou shall moan but not complain”. The outcome of this mentality is that things never change. People need to stamp their authority and say they’re not prepared to put up with it any more. But nobody does, because ‘nobody has time’ (and other excuses).

Sophie Gilbert says:
2 December 2010

In Edinburgh Lothian Buses have a web page going at the moment with regularly updated information about what buses are running, where from and where to, and what buses are cancelled. Thank you, Lothian Buses!

Simon says:
2 December 2010

As a regular decade-of-commuting commuter between Reading and Swindon, it never ceases to amaze me that just when passengers need accurate information, it is never available. I have a 20 minute trek to Wokingham station where I then connect on to Reading. On days like today, I foolishly check the Live Departure boards online and foolishly believe when it says all the trains are on time. I skip gleefully to the station and am surprised when I get there to see that everything has changed and all trains are now 25 minutes late. What a trusting fool!

In this day and age, I agree that the solution is to remove the human error and fit GPS to trains so that passengers know exactly where they are and how late they will be. Oh, and while you are at it, fit some mibile phone transmitterydoohdahs so that we can make uninterrupted calls. And clean the sewage from the toilets please, that would help our moods enormously. Rant over, need to prepare (mentally) for tomorrow’s commute…

Reading the current issue of Rail magazine, I notice that Tyne and Wear Metro is getting a GPS location kit which even advises drivers of the best speed to use to get to the next station on time!