/ Travel & Leisure

I changed jobs and moved house to avoid my commuting hell

The disruption to my commute was so persistent and severe, I decided to move several hundred miles away and took a pay cut to avoid the journey, writes our guest Jonathan Lee-Smith…

For two years I commuted daily from Blackpool to Manchester, using Northern Rail for all or part of each journey, but the regular disruption due to engineering works made me so unhappy I ultimately left my job and moved to another part of the country.

Between the summer of 2016 and 2018, I suffered regular problems with my daily commute – trains were either delayed, cancelled or overcrowded.

Guide: best and worst UK train companies

The standard time between the 2 stations is around 80 minutes for a journey of 50 miles, however this was rarely achieved.

Regularly my shift at work finished at 10pm in Manchester and I wouldn’t be getting home in Blackpool until after 1am.

Similar delays in the mornings, meant my working day including commute would regularly exceed 14 hours a day, and in the end I couldn’t hack it.

Train pain

The cause of the delays were engineering works closing different parts of the line over this period.

The replacement buses were actually good, but it was the connecting services that were an issue.

They were horribly uncomfortable and difficult to rely on. These trains often had fewer carriages as well – meaning services were often overcrowded.

Hell on earth

I’m a great rail enthusiast, so criticising any element of  the UK rail network does not fill me with pleasure – but my journey to and from work had become like hell on earth and it was affecting my personal life.

Before the problems started I used to have time to meet my friends in the pub for an hour or so. I couldn’t do that anymore. It made me tired and miserable. It was affecting my sleep.

I was just sleeping and working. It got to the point where I wasn’t happy with anything so I decided to make a change. I couldn’t offer the commitment to my employer; it wasn’t fair on them or me.

Drastic change

So I took a long hard look at the effect the commute was having on my work/life balance and my ability to carry out my job and realised none of it was worth it.

I gave up, quit my job and moved house. I needed a radical change – and a new job which wouldn’t involve so much commuting.

I ended up taking a job in Devon, living and working in a hotel, which is very different from what I was doing previously.

I had to leave all my friends and my social life behind. I’d built a decent career, been promoted twice and was earning a decent wage. Now I’m on two-thirds of what I was before, but don’t have to pay for travel.

This is a guest post by Jonathan Lee-Smith. All views expressed are Jonathan’s own and not necessarily those also shared by Which?.

How reliable is your commute to work? Would you consider moving house or job to avoid a difficult journey to and from work? Please share your stories.

Commuters: is your rail commute often disrupted?
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Alan Sheppard says:
26 January 2019

I had job in Leeds while living in Sheffield but had to leave due to the significantly increasing rail fares and the appalling train service between the 2 cities. The train were frequently delayed, in some cases cancelled without any notice and recently being hit by strike action. The service by Northern was no better than 3rd world standards often dirty, wet; cold and rattling. As people were desperate to avoid Northern they went on the other services which entailed standing for the 50 minute journey.
I was formally reprimanded by my employer for poor timekeeping which was due to the constantly delayed and cancelled trains so I was given no option to resign and seek employment in Sheffield at a lower salary.
Any responsible Government would have stripped Northern Rail of the franchise due to failing service standards but as with the Northern Powerhouse we can only hope in the frozen in time North.

John B. palmer says:
29 January 2019

Northern Rail should be stripped of its Franchise.
I don’t commute, but use the trains extensively.
Northern Rail is the worst train company I have experienced.

Allen says:
27 January 2019

I once met a nice man on the train who (four days a week) commuted to his work at the Telecom Tower in London from Cleethorpes. I asked him if he was mad. He appreciated that this might seem to be the case, but explained that the cost of living in Cleethorpes, plus the four-day-a week commute, was the only combination that enabled him to live on the salary he received: living closer was impossible. Higher living costs more than outweighed the saving in rail fares. In any event, at work there were colleagues who lived much closer to London but whose rail journey, on average, took far longer than his! At least he could get a seat with a table, and do a lot of his work on the journey. They could not. There is a perverse logic to all of it.

The only real solution is for sources of employment to disperse across the country. Improving commuter services is not an option: what do you do with all that extra rolling stock that is only used in a couple of very narrow periods each day? What do you do with the drivers that are only really needed from 8am to 10am, then from 5pm to 7pm? Run empty suburban trains around all day to no useful purpose? That could easily be what happens, and as a result, commuter services are among the most heavily loss-making, and subsidized, in the country. Effectively, this is public money going to private employers. We should move to a situation in which those employers find they can no longer attract necessary staff in central locations; the only way of inducing them to de-centralize. We should aim to eliminate peak periods, not expand the service to accommodate them.

As well as dispersing work across the UK, some of which could be enabled by using technology, we need also to make more use of video conferencing for one-off meetings. Not only would this save money for companies through not having to pay for rail or road journeys, it would also make their employees more productive. Less use of roads would reduce wear and tear. Fewer early morning rises to catch a train to be in say, London for 9am would reduce stress on the employee and rail network.

I’m a consultant/contractor in investment banking, which means working in either the City of London or Canary Wharf. I lived in Chislehurst in south-east London (TfL zone 4) for 10 years, which meant either Southeastern trains to Cannon Street or driving 10 miles including through the infamous Blackwall Tunnel to Canary Wharf. Both suffered increasingly-frequent delays, but the latter was preferable because I was in full control of any required re-routing. I got so fed up with delays, often several times per week, that I moved 4½ years ago to within walking distance of Canary Wharf. This now means a short Boris bike ride to Canary Wharf or the Docklands Light Railway to Bank. My quality of life has improved significantly as a result, particularly when I cycle to work in Canary Wharf, as I arrive feeling very positive and happy.

I notice that, if you ask anyone in London how long their commute is, they will always significantly underquote it, because they do not want to admit the depressing truth of their horrible journey. They usually exclude almost-daily delays as well as any journey between their home and their local station.

My daughter at 17 started an apprenticeship and had to start commuting into Twickenham from Hampshire. She has to pay full fare as there are no discounts for students if they travel during peak hours. When trains are regularly cancelled she has to drive a fair distance to the next station and pay extra parking charges. This extra £10 a day is a lot of money to a student on a minimum wage and to try and get money refunded for the paid in advance journeys is extremely time consuming. She gets nothing for the extra petrol she has to buy and the extra time for travelling. I cannot believe that a company is allowed to operate with such arrogance and contempt for its fee paying customers. It is a national scandal.

Tony Pitt says:
29 January 2019

I do agree, we seem to have the worst train service in Europe, and it just seems to me to be getting even worse, it must be a nightmare to have to commute in to London on overcrowded late trains that is if they turn up at all,

Andy says:
31 January 2019

French and German commuter services are bad too, it’s only the high speed routes that live up to the image of on time seamless running, which incidentally most of ours do too.

Quite so . . . and the high speed trains on the continent are reservation only. Many of the local and suburban trains in Europe are fairly basic conveyances too.

That’s right. And I believe Eurostar is every bit as good in comfort, timekeeping and overall quality as any of the Continental high speed trains.

The service provided by Govia Group (Southern, Gatwick Express, Thameslink) is appalling, and has been getting steadily worse over the last 6 years, despite changes to the organisation, rolling stock and timetable. Simply put they are not fit for purpose, should be fined and have their license revoked. However UKGov (Chris Grayling and DfT) are equally to blame for not holding Govia to account years ago.

If you really want to engender meaningful change for the people, solve this issue (and many others) with UKGov and these symptons will fix themselves.

Irene Wilcox says:
28 January 2019

I am not a commute, but have a child with cancer, who lives and works in Manchester, so I am up and down at least once every two weeks, sometimes more. To ensure I got a seat on Southern Rail; I started to use first class, that soon went out the window, as it was regularly declassified. This was irritating for me, but the commuter I met, who paid the extra, so he could work on the train it was a disaster. Making connection at Euston became a nightmare; once the driver got out at Lewes, saying he need the toilet, we were locked in, twenty minuets later he returned with a drink and sandwich. However; again I at least was not trying to get to Gatwick , nor am I a wheelchair user. Thanks to some stupid idea, not to have guards on the train; they get trapped on the train till someone remembers they are there. I was asked to stand in the door, by one such suffer, to prevent it shutting. I stood half in, half out beckoning to the driver who hurled abuse at me. I said not a word till finally, a person shouting abuse came close enough to observe the problem, no apologies were offered. The suffer told me this was the fourth day that week, which he would not have able to exit at the correct station. I advised him to invest, in a retractable metal rod, that he can force between the doors, to get attention. Some times Victoria Station became so crowded, that they would lie, saying a train is going to your destination, only to find yourself stranded at Gatwick or Brighton. To avoid having to pay compensation, they delay cancelling trains too early, a friend of my child, works for Southern Rail. Informed me, that contrary to what the boards were reading, there was only one train due. I was advised; it only had two carriages; given the platform number, I stood in the rain and got a seat, many didn’t, the crazy thing is people kept try to get on. It was so packed; that at my destination, without a gentleman carrying my suitcase over his head and fight his way through I would have been stuck on the train. An elderly lady was crying on the platform as her twin sister had not managed to exit. I don’t travel usually in rush hour, so my heart goes out to those that are forced to suffer this daily. I was at a meeting with my child in Manchester; the problems we had been experiencing for over two years was now being experiencing by those up North Their train companies decided to copy the same “Asine ideas”, despite their obvious failures. The Mayor; stated that if this problem was happening down South, “the Government would had done something to rectify it”. My child had to physically restrain me from asking him, “on which planet he lived”, that if he wished to know how bad it would become, ask those that had, had, too too much experience. I threw in the towel; the idea of have to travel through “two zones of insanity” was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. I decied to drive; despite the fact that “Highways Britain” puts roadworks up as though they were Daisies, (keep popping up everywhere). Closes major roads from 10 pm Friday to 6am Monday, a journey that usual takes 6 hours is increased to 11 hours, due to the diversions. That having reached my destination, I need to find parking. I wouldn’t willing “Let the train take the strain”, ever again.

I travel on Southern rail from Shoreham by Sea to Victoria. We as commuters have had nearly two years of disruption. Many trains have been reduced to four carriages where previously there were eight. This means many tarins are overcrowded. Apart from delays, cancellations and reduced amount of trains, the rolling stock is sub-standard.
A lot of the inter-connecting doors do not work. They are either stuck open or refuse to open. This causes real distress to passengers who sometimes have to change carriages to find a toilet instead of being able to work down the train. I have seen a man on crutches having to do this. An OBS apologised last week because none of the toilets on the train were working. Our fares have increased, for what?

I hope Which? will be sending these stories of commuter hell to the Secretary of State for Transport. Chris Grayling will no doubt say that he doesn’t run the railways . . . which is probably true, so why did the DfT issue a press release on 2 January entitled “Grayling slashes rail fares for a generation of rail passengers” [referring to new railcards for 16 & 17 year olds (½ price) and for 26-30 year olds (⅔ price)]? He can’t have it both ways.

I commuted daily between Garforth and Leeds for 16 months; a journey that was supposed to take around 10 minutes. The trains were never on time, always overcrowded and often cancelled. I’ve taken a job closer to home on a lower salary because the effect on my work/life balance and general wellbeing just wasn’t worth it. Northern Fail have every excuse under the sun for this absolute joke of a “service” rather than simply take responsibility and make the positive changes that are within their power and so desperately needed. Instead they keep increasing rail fares – yet commuters get nothing in return for the increased cost.

Laurie Winston says:
29 January 2019

I enjoyed reading the customer satisfaction ratings on train companies but had to laugh. I regularly travel between Yorkshire and London. I have a ‘choice’ between Hull Trains, Grand Central and LNER. I’m not satisfied with any of them and change allegiance according to my latest bad experience! I have not used Grand Central (4 star toilet facilities) since using one of their trains from York to London where all the toilets were out of order, and the train, already running late, made unscheduled station stops so we could get out and queue to use the station loos! Hull Trains have a habit of terminating the train from London at Doncaster and then arranging coaches/taxis. Towards the end of last year they were short of rolling stock and cancelled half their services for a period of weeks. The staff on LNER are generally great, as on all the companies, but they do find it difficult to remember which company they work for, there have been so many franchise failures! LNER run trains from London to York half-hourly, Grand Central 5 a day and Hull 6 a day from London to Hull so I don’t see how LNER fail to beat the other two on frequency!! I’m not sure about the generalisation that smaller companies are better – I think Hull Trains used to be a small company but is now owned by First Group. I also use Northern quite often for journeys within the county and would concur that the overcrowding and punctuality is awful. And as for my experience organising group travel with Virgin, it’s too painful even to recount.
Basically, the system is a mess, the government places far higher priority on road travel than public transport. I’m lucky to have a choice between three poor operations, for most journeys there isn’t one.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Hi Duncan,

Since publication we have been sharing the convo more widely with supporters of our rail campaign

Naturally we would expect our regulars to have got here first though!

I was travelling from Heathrow not exactly a commute but because I could not rely on Northern rail drove down from Cumbria ridiculous waste of energy and more damage to environment

I can’t. Contemplate a train journey anymore. The deliberate underfunding and ideologically driven private rail service cannot meet my needs. Nor does it want to.
I’m sure they are delighted to see that I have resorted to the bus and all its attendant hells.
Disinvestment and deterrence is their plan.

It seems most people would prefer to work near home. I believe the government and government departments should encourage employers to employ local people. They could incentivise by giving tax incentives on a sliding scale, for employing within certain criteria ie living distance from workplace, extra for those that can walk or cycle to work. I used to work for a nationalised company who openly took the stance that the further you were prepared to travel the more you wanted the job, if you weren’t prepared to travel you didn’t get the job, needles to say many employees were driving past each other on a daily basis wasting time and resources, oh! and of course increasing pollution. Maybe the idea of working locally is against the interest of some powerful transport lobbyists.

The government (when they are not quite as distracted) should consider giving encouragement to employers to locate away from overcrowded areas and set up shop in areas where commuting will be shorter, easier, and where more affordable housing is available. Quite Why Which?, for example, must have the bulk of its staff in a most polluted and expensive part of central London and no doubt have to pay high salaries for staff to spend on expensive housing and train fares is worthy of explanation, perhaps.

Yes, it’s an anachronism, but the best restaurants are close by for the business lunches.

I guess this means that working lunches – as typically hosted within meeting rooms – are not yet a thing in dear old London town.

The emphasis should be on reducing the need for commuting. With modern communications there are few white-collar jobs outside of retail assistant which cannot be done from home, with perhaps the odd meeting at a rural location.
The cost of providing the infrastructure and manning, for huge cost of assets utilised at less than 20% load, 20 hours a day, the non-productive hours spent by commuters on travel, the personal vehicles spending all day in car-parks, it doesn’t make good business sense.
Reduce the unnecessary cenralisation, a hangover from the 20th.C., and the trains will be quite adequate.

I have very similar views. I would add the caveat though, that video , teleconference meetings do not work for team meetings. They don’t facilitate many of the things that help to build rapport within a team: “How’s the family / new car/ holiday” etc.

I agree that Tele and video conferencing aren’t the best format for all meetings.

That said, meeting attendance is often cited as a nice alternative to doing actual work.

So for actual white-collar work, it is hard to beat having a work place close to or even at home.

Clive Cooper says:
29 January 2019

I am retired and don’t therefore travel by rail anymore.However I can empathise with Jonathan and agree that it is a disgrace that the rail disruption has caused him to have to make such a major change to his lifestyle.I imagine however that one benefit will be a more agreeable lifestyle living in Devon compared to Blackpool.
Always look on the bright side !

Trains were invented here in Britain. Then they were copied throughout the world. Other countries have trains which run like clockwork; Japan, France, Switzerland. In Italy they are usually late but they do run and are cheap enough for students to get home to their families at the other end of the country every weekend. The government sees it as their national responsibility to meet social needs. We must be the only country in the developed world which has such disregard for the physical and social needs of its citizens. Depression and Mental illness would be less likely to occur if folk could afford to visit their friends and family more often. Trains here are only affordable now to a small proportion of the population. Guards are needed for basic health & safety. Who else will do CPR in an emergency? Certainly the driver cannot be expected to do and see everything, as in who looks a risky character or could be carrying a gun. Travelling on a train after 9pm, I would not feel safe without a guard- either a big burly chap or a woman with a black belt in a martial art. It would make sense these days to have police on trains. As for a nice day out in London, well forget that if you are being paid a provincial wage. You would have to work two long days to pay for an opera + train ticket to London if you are employed in the public service sector. Then maybe another week to pay for an hotel. No wonder our country is so divided, when the price of the trains is so unaffordable and that’s before we think about what we would do at the destination, like attend a premier league football match. People cannot integrate if they cannot afford to go out. Or maybe London is just a showcase for tourists!
What I find hard to understand is why, when we live in a country with the richest square mile in the world, the government cannot take control and pay for our trains to being properly managed. Will things change after Brexit??? Personally I’m a Remainer and think that we have a great deal to learn about how to run decent trains from other European countries. Or if there’s No Deal, we could look to how its done in Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan or Canada. We need to model ourselves on a successful system elsewhere. Sad that really, when we were the inventors!

Andy says:
31 January 2019

Actually it’s the high speed services which run well abroad, commuter services aren’t that dissimilar to here. France are also looking at privatisation now, hence the last year of monthly strikes over there. Trains are perfectly affordable, but the rub is that you have to know where you are going many weeks in advance to get cheap tickets. Just like the air industry, the nearer to departure time the higher the cost as the seats sell and market forces take over. The main good thing that several Eu rail networks for high speed services do is operate a no ticket no travel policy, so once all the seats are sold on that train you can’t use it and so there’s no overcrowding. Here however, we would view that as limiting our choice and refuse to accept not just being able to turn up and board any train we want to, so as a result unless you reserve a seat all your ticket allows you to do is board the train and it’s then every man, woman and child for themselves…we can’t have it both ways.

I’m a customer of Greater Anglia (GA) and commute daily from Essex into London. Despite very high ticket prices, GA appears reluctant to invest in sufficient, reliable rolling stock. Short-formed trains are common leading to packed carriages. Each workday morning, before anything else, I check GA’s website for both train cancellations and trains that have been shortened due to inadequate stock. I then plan my journey as best I can. Viewing their website is an eye-opener to the sheer volume of disruptions across their network per day. In a BBC website article (29/1/19) GA admits having fewer carriages in 2019 due to damage to their trains caused by 2018’s heavy snowfall, 10-11 months previously. I find it disturbing that their stock is so fragile and that there is insufficient spare capacity. Like many of the train operating companies, GA gives the impression that maximising their profit is their priority, at the expense of investing in the provision of service to the travelling public. Chris Grayling and the Dept. for Transport seem to condone this state of affairs. As a proponent of public transport, it’s a shame that when I’m working away from London, I now always opt to drive rather than go by train as the whole rail system seems far too unreliable and can be hideously expensive. When working in London, I really don’t have a choice and GA know that, so why try any harder?

Jonathan C says:
29 January 2019

When I was living in France in 2005, they wanted to put a new road under the main line. They built a new bridge, beside the railway. Then they closed the line at about 10 p.m., moved the new bridge into place at 1 a.m., and re-opened the line to trains by 8 a.m.

Allan Hall says:
29 January 2019

Before I moved I had to catch a train to work every day from Ansdell to Kirkham. Towards the end l found it was getting worse every day. The train would to turn up on time about once a week if I was lucky

29 January 2019

Now retired I have very rerly had to use public transport as I was a publican, however those few times were far from uneventful. Wanting to travel to a village a few miles outside Milton Keynes from Bristol I had to go to Birmingham and change trains. First of all I was staggered by the price, the journey from Bristol was reasonable although we were delayed for nearly an hour which meant I missed my connection. When the train arrived there were no seats available, and as a person with bi lateral artists I my knees I was not impressed.
Another time comuting from the Devon coast to Gloucester the train was delayed by 3 hours. In that time no one from the rail company on the station came to inform us of the situation, I had to risk the train not leaving while I looked for the station staff or official to inquire.
I am aware there are rush hours but when you pay for a ticket, you expect to get a comfortable space to travel in, not stand for your journey in an over crowded carriage. Perhaps they should re-nationalis the whole railway system.