/ Travel & Leisure

My commuting experience: is your journey at risk of being scrapped?

train tracks

You might feel like one of the lucky few if you’ve got a reliable train commute to work. But what if the service has an uncertain future?

At the moment, I feel a bit like the Goldilocks of commuters. My journey into work isn’t too short to get stuck into a good book or have a nap, but it’s not intolerably long either. I use the high-speed trains from Maidstone into London, which, for me, are just right.

Of course, there are the usual gripes – overcrowding, occasionally being turfed off a broken-down train in the middle of nowhere, or herded onto a replacement bus that takes you on the scenic route. And I’ll never get used to handing over £40 a day in fares (including a railcard discount).

But all things considered, it’s a pretty reliable service that gets lots of people into work and then back home in time for tea.

Trouble down the line?

So, of course, it makes perfect sense to scrap it. The problem is that the south-eastern franchise is up for renewal, and the government has told bidding train companies they don’t have to keep running the fast link from Kent’s county town into London.

Transport Minister Chris Grayling has said ‘there is no intention to introduce degradation of today’s level of service’, but then he has also said he’s ‘not a specialist in rail matters’, so naturally I’m worried there’s trouble ahead.

The alternative (longer) route would apparently be to Abbey Wood in south-east London, where passengers could pick up the new Crossrail service and then Underground connections within central London. Or we could presumably squeeze on to the slower Maidstone East to Victoria stopping service.

Both options sound unappealing.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that trains from Maidstone into the City of London were axed in 2009, and although a new City service has been promised, it keeps being delayed.

Is anyone listening?

Campaigners recently handed in a petition signed by more than 2,000 people, highlighting the impact that losing the high-speed service would have on working and family life. You can hear some of them talking about their concerns here.

There’s also a fair bit of anger out there about the perceived lack of consultation with the public. Campaigners say they’ve asked ministers from the Department for Transport to come and discuss the plans but have been repeatedly ‘fobbed off’, and the DfT has turned down a Freedom of Information request.

Once again, paying customers are being ignored and left to fight their own corner – which is why I’m shamelessly using Which? Conversation to highlight concerns and hopefully drum up some support for fellow commuters – and the Which? campaign to get trains working for passengers.

Wherever you are in the country, there’ll be winners and losers when rail services change and commuters are presented with ‘new journey opportunities’.

But more often than not, it feels like those in charge are the winners, while we’re left to make our way through the woods using whatever service is just right… for them.

Are you worried about your commuter service being scrapped or reduced? Or will you benefit from new services, such as Crossrail, in the near future?

Kleef the Queef says:
7 August 2018

well, it’s all about commerce isn’t it?

Why would you think that anything other than money is being considered?

The railway rules (since the Beeching report) have been

1. Does it make money? Yes, keep it, no, close it
2. Does an MP live in the constituency and need a train to get into Westminster? Yes, keep it. No, close it.

According the timetable there are 48 trains a day from Maidstone East to London Victoria, with a journey time of between 1h 04 and 1h 10. and no changes. From Maidstone West there are around 48 timetabled trains to St Pancras, journey time 1h 03, all with one change. The annual season ticket for both is around £4450, so assuming 200 journeys a year, that’s £22.25 a day.

So, not knowing the transport in this part of the world, I’m a little confused. As a commuter I’d assume you’d buy a season ticket, not the full fare return (peak time around £35 according to Trainline). and the journey time from M. East is not much longer than from M.West and involves no changes.

Presumably if the “fast” service to St Pancras is axed, then most commuters would take the Maidstone East service and crowd that? So is that the problem?

The DfT seems to be rejigging a lot of train franchises without much concern over the consequences for passengers. Many people have moved their workplace or their home in order to take advantage of the High Speed 1 link from Kent to London St Pancras [just outside the City of London – and convenient for Marylebone Road, incidentally], so tearing up the rail map will cause problems for many people. So far as I can recall, the interchange between the Maidstone services and Crossrail at Abbey Wood will not be a straightforward cross-platform connexion but will involve going up and over the tracks to the other platforms.

I assume there has been the usual statutory consultation in advance of the formal tendering process for the new franchise. The DfT has actually made a good job of this on the Norwich to Liverpool service which they want to divide at either Nottingham or Sheffield supposedly to make it more reliable. They have produced many leaflets and other information which has been made widely available. No regular user should be unaware of the proposal. Nevertheless there is considerable opposition, because for many passengers there will be a break of journey and the risk of a missed connection if their arriving train is late at Nottingham [or Sheffield], no guarantee of a seat and luggage space on the second leg, and the fear of an increase in price as the two sections would be run by different train operating companies. It looks as though the DfT is going ahead anyway despite the many objections; I doubt there are more than a handful of supporters of the change.

Charlotte admits that she is “shamelessly using Which? Conversation to highlight concerns and hopefully drum up some support for fellow commuters”. While this is a legitimate concern and a fit topic for discussion in Which? Conversation, I wish it had been broadened out from one person’s direct interest to look at what is happening around the country. I think Which? should feel a little ashamed that it is having to mine the personal experiences of its staff to fill so many of the Conversation pieces. And, on my own personal note, I am getting a little tired of reading the bleats and moans of London commuters; I have the strong feeling that if they didn’t think it was worth it they wouldn’t carry on doing it – but I acknowledge that might be too simplistic a response. There is, after all, a wheelbarrow full of worthwhile subjects for Conversation that have been suggested by readers as well as a whole compost bin full of stories and campaigns that require an update or further action – or even a response to questions that have been raised. Rather than trying to force a new Conversation out every day it might be better to invest more time in some of those that are a bit more intractable but of greater overall value to consumers generally.

Notwithstanding all the foregoing, I am very supportive of the Which? campaign to get trains working for passengers. The DfT [or Grayling initial P, to be more precise] states that that is their mission but the words and figures don’t always agree.

We seem to be short of information, such as what the timetable will be from Maidstone to Abbey Wood (said to be 25 mins to Bond Street on Crossrail). I see no reason why DfT should not answer this. But I’m also concerned at the discrepancy in ticket prices, and the trainline timetabled train times. I’m sure Charlotte will put me straight.

Commuting places great demands on the rail system and uses rolling stock and staff inefficiently just to meet peak time high volumes of passengers. I don’t know what Which?’s working time policy is, but I would have thought a worthwhile if staff their started to campaign for staggered working hours to significantly extend the peak times, reduce overcrowding and improve punctuality. If all London business were to campaign similarly we (well you) might end up with a much more tolerable commute.

I’d still rather see more business relocate so people have more choice than spending several hours a day and thousands of pounds a year just to go to work.

“Transport Minister Chris Grayling has said ‘there is no intention to introduce degradation of today’s level of service’, but then he has also said he’s ‘not a specialist in rail matters’, so naturally I’m worried there’s trouble ahead.

And, in a single sentence, Charlotte sums up UK politics today. No minister is a specialist in what they administer; think of them more as caretakers, minus the ‘care’ bit. I mean, if you had specialists, think of the trouble it would cause. Just for a start Ministers would be able to comprehend the issues, and where d’you think that would lead? It would be only a short step to them being able to think for themselves.

I mean, imagine if the Health minister actually knew anything about how the NHS operates? Or the education secretary was actually literate? The entire basis of our democracy depends on those who think they’re in charge being as utterly clueless about what they’re doing as the PM is about Economics.

Of course, they have opinions, sacks full of them. But in terms of what they know, what they understand – well, that’s limited to working out how many votes they’ll need to keep their job come the next election.

It really is quite unreasonable to expect Minsters to have a sound grasp of what they’re doing. If they did, then not only would re-shuffles be redundant but there’s be a very real risk they’d try to start making improvements. And that’s a slippery slope.

Bertie Wooster : ” I’ve just had an idea, Jeeves …”

His gentleman’s personal gentleman : “Beginner’s luck, sir.”

[P.G. Wodehouse]

Those with long memories will recall the vigorous local opposition thrown up by Maidstone in the days when the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, now HS1, might have served the county town directly. That would have given quite a bit more than just the three weekdays-only, peak hours only, HS1 return services of today.
It’s over four years before the next timetable change on South Eastern, specified in the DfT’s Invitation to Tender issued last November to be in December 2022. That will be subject to consultation, as was the new franchise itself back in spring last year. When we know who the operator of the new franchise will be, announced this November to start next April, then we’ll all know who we really need to be talking to when it comes to that timetable consultation.

Oh for the added detail! It makes such a difference when these important facets are included in Conversations. So essentially the battle is due in a few years time – 2022 – so is this scare-mongering or simply misunderstanding the situation?

As to the London focus of Which, it’s HQ adjacent to Hyde Park and in one of London’s most polluted areas, this does seem to be perverse. Surely a consumers charity [ the Consumers Association owns Which?] should be looking at the advantages in this age of Broadband of relocating to a cheaper and healthier part of the country. Better use of subscribers money and importantly for staff health.

At the very least remote working would have negated the need for an extra floor [and roof garden] being added in the last three years.

The new franchise will commence in 2019 and the new timetable that might affect the HS1 services is not due to be introduced until 2022, but the timetable planning and reorganisation of services will have to start in 2020 I should think, so as soon as the new train operating company is announced – November 2018 – is the time to start building the case for keeping the existing pattern of services or improving them and then campaigning through 2019 to maximise support.

The shortlisted bidders are (a) Stagecoach [with Alstom], (b) Abellio, East Japan Railway, and Mitsui, and (c) Govia [65:35 joint venture of Go-Ahead and Keolis] – incumbent operator.

One town’s commuter problems which may be affected adversely but other towns may benefit from a rejigging that improved their service. Seems to me that this is happening half-c**k.

Essentially though given that the rail system needs to be nationally planned and organised for efficiency – in most people’s eyes – it seems that we ought surely be going for a bigger answer rather than fighting for single commuter towns.

Also I think most regulars agree that there are practical limitations on how much rail traffic can run into London at peak times and perhaps explaining this in detail would help people understand the nature of the problem. Employers requesting attendance in London, people taking jobs there despite horrendous and fragile timings, are they the problem?

A bit off-topic, but perhaps if more people worked from home for part of the week, that could greatly help cut down the problems associated with commuting. Many employees spend much of their time sitting in front of a computer and that lends itself to working part of the time at home.

There is a suggestion, based on “research”, that commuters should be paid for sending emails on their journey to work. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-45333270

Commuting is often a personal choice – cheaper housing, nicer surroundings – rather than imposed by the employer. Emails? How many people think about work when they are in their car, or at home? My experience was such – as I was interested in what I did I’d think about solutions to problems or plan a project in my mind while relaxing at home. Should all this be logged and the hours paid for?

Hmmm. I suspect the answer is it depends. If someone has a work environment where there’s significant pressure to complete all e-paper work then it could very well be considered reasonable for that to count towards the working time.

In your own case, for instance, you admit that you had an interest in what you were doing, so it probably didn’t seem like a chore. But many are not in that enviable position. Or are salaried without recourse to any sort of flexible working or overtime.

Teachers are an excellent example. The committed teachers and teachers of Sport and Music, for example often work very long hours without any financial recognition. I suspect many GPs to, too. So, in short, it really does depend on your own circumstances.

Some employers already allow flexible working between home and office or other locations and even trust their employees not to cheat the system.

When I was a team leader leader, I discovered I was more or less powerless to prevent a certain few employees from spending almost all of their office time either socializing or surfing, but if they hadn’t attended for their contracted hours, they could easily have been fired.