Tuesday 20th July 2021
I made six train journeys on Saturday and experienced more mixed messaging leaving me wondering whether our Government controlled railways along with the train companies really are interested in attracting passengers back on board particularly following yesterday’s withdrawal of Covid restrictions.
During the early months of the pandemic messaging was all about not using public transport. “Avoid public transport” was the official Government line and we all did. In huge numbers, “to protect the NHS and save lives”. Passenger numbers fell to an almost unmeasurable 4% in April 2020. Trains were running pretty much empty up and down the country needing billions in subsidy. Timetables were reduced, in some cases by about 50%, but services had to be maintained to provide transport for “essential workers”.
Alarmed at the scale of the herculean task of attracting passengers back when activity opened up again last summer we started receiving messages railways were perfectly safe with RSSB even telling us you only had a 1 in 11,000 chance of catching Covid on a train.
Fast forward through the Autumn and Spring 2021 lockdowns to the situation applicable from yesterday, hailed by the right wing media as ‘Freedom Day’, and passenger numbers have already recovered to almost 50% with mask wearing, in my experience, already on the wane especially among teenagers and young adults, who ironically are at the biggest risk of spreading and catching the virus due to being largely unvaccinated.
At the same time we’re in the midst of a new ‘pingdemic’ with the NHS app assiduously telling millions of people they must isolate with its consequential devastating impact on staff availability and service reliability.
Take Saturday for example, when I travelled to Huddersfield and Denby Dale for the day.
In what’s becoming almost a regular feature of weekend rail travel on the Brighton Main Line, three of the four trains between Hassocks and London Victoria/London Bridge between 06:30 and 07:30 were cancelled. That’s worse than the reduced service for the 4% of travellers during lockdown 1.
How are the “essential workers” supposed to get to work now? I understand 400 of the 7,300 staff employed by GTR are currently self isolating at the moment which can’t be helping, but weekend unreliability is not a new problem. It’s endemic in many parts of the network. I understand the entire Cumbrian line was shut down on a recent Saturday.
London Underground is suffering a similar staff shortage especially at weekends which taken with engineering works is decimating the network. Yet again on Saturday there was no service at all on the Metropolitan Line due to a shortage of control room staff as a consequence of lockdown and social distancing restrictions impacting training over the past year. But how is this enabling those “essential workers” get to work now?
Then I had to endure the complete farce that is LNER’s current service offering and its ludicrous policy of compulsory seat reservations. I booked my ticket on the 08:33 from Kings Cross to Leeds last Tuesday being allocated a seat in coach B. The next day, Wednesday, I received an email to advise the train formation would now be different so “seat reservations will not apply”. The same thing happened to me on the same journey a few weeks ago too.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise as that journey is now allocated to a diagram worked by a Class 91 and Mark 4 set of coaches rather than an Azuma. I read about this regular occurrence in a rail magazine a while ago so it should be well known to LNER’s computer and makes you wonder why the company is causing unnecessary confusion and distress to its customers?
All the more so on Saturday because as passengers were boarding at Kings Cross there was a look of bewilderment on the faces of everyone walking up to the front end of the train with their seat reservations in hand in search of a missing coach A who’d obviously not seen and read Wednesday’s update. They ended up wandering into coach B wondering what to do.
Meanwhile Train Manager Charlotte was introducing herself over the PA telling us about all the usual introductory stuff including what tickets you couldn’t use on the train (“those marked Thameslink, Great Northern, Grand Central and Hull Trains” – such a welcoming way to greet us all) and explaining there was “no coach K due to a mechanical issue so could passengers use coach L or coach M instead” but no mention of the missing coach A and insisted in a forceful tone “you must sit in your designated reserved seat”.
It wasn’t much good telling that to the puzzled passengers displaced from coach A who were wandering up and down coach B trying to second guess which seats might not be reserved by passengers yet to board at Stevenage and Grantham – where we went through the same debacle as more distressed coach A passengers boarded.
Was it beyond LNER’s organisational ability to have a member of staff posted by coach B on the platform reassuring passengers what to do in what must be a regular occurrence? Yes, it seems so.
This isn’t just a one off experience. This is happening nine times every day in each direction. Currently departures to Leeds from Kings Cross at 08:33, 10:03, 10:33, 14:03, 16:03, 17:03, 19:33, 21:33 are all scheduled for a Class 91/Mark 4 as well as the 23:00 to York. That’s a lot of bewildered passengers.
I took a walk through the train after we’d left Grantham and saw just how illogical the computer allocated seat reservations system is seemingly having no regard to sensible spacing for social distancing. There were just 14 passengers in coach D with 30 in coach F and of course Coach B was doing heavy lifting due to the missing coach A with 36 passengers. Coaches C and E each had 18. After Doncaster and Wakefield it was every boarding passenger for themselves as it’s quite clear from the body language none of them have bothered with seat reservations for their local journeys to Leeds making a complete mockery of not only the whole policy but the company too. Quite why managing director David Horne keeps spouting out the defence LNER’s “research shows customers are satisfied with the system” is beyond me. It’s quite clear the real world is saying different.
And just one more LNER anecdote to finish this tirade: yesterday, I travelled from Kings Cross to Leeds with a friend, and as we had separate tickets and were inevitably allocated seats in different coaches, I used LNER’s online seat reservation system on Sunday evening (remember “you can reserve seats up to five minutes before departure”) to reserve two seats together specifying a preference for a table and forward facing. I was given two seats together in coach A airline style and backward facing. What is it with LNER’s software? Is it deliberately using “Computer says No” whatever the request? In the event coach A had four spare unreserved tables FOR THE ENTIRE JOURNEY. So we took a chance and sat at one.
This is not the way to encourage passengers. Can you imagine a family trying to make a journey and being faced with such a ridiculous situation?
Back to last Saturday’s trip, and from Leeds I took TransPennine Express across to Huddersfield; always a busy route, especially on a summer Saturday morning so I was full of dread when I heard the platform announcement that the 11:07 train originating in Hull and bound for Manchester would be formed of three, yes three, coaches. What are TPE thinking of putting out a three coach train on a journey like that? I’ve lost count of how many new trains the company have introduced over the last year or so – they even boasted about the roll out on one of those ‘fly on the wall’ Channel 5 documentary series last year yet here we are, a ‘packed to the gunnels’ train on the eve of ‘Freedom Day’.
Luckily quite a contingent got off at Leeds but there was also a platform full waiting to board. I decided to go to the rear of the train only to be met with a Bakerloo Line Underground train style ‘No Entry’ notice insisting the rear section with twelve seats was “Train crew only”. Except no train crew were using it. Fortunately they were in the cabs.
Meanwhile the equivalent space at the other end of that coach was almost full of passengers.
And the bit in the middle was busy too.
I tweeted a photograph of this on Saturday which set off quite a dialogue between TPE staff justifying their need for an isolated area from passengers in case they have to travel passenger between stations during their duty and others who pointed out the nonsensical nature of leaving seats out of bounds on already busy trains.
I didn’t join in that exchange but was alarmed to receive official news from the TPE Twitter people that this arrangement will “remain in place” from 19th July. They also reckon “aisle seats … will become available”. Erm, they obviously haven’t seen what’s been happening in the real world already then.
My point about this is one of principle; I acknowledge it’s only 12 seats out of commission but if trains are safe for passengers to travel in – as the RSSB and train operators keep telling us – then why aren’t they safe for rail staff too? Why do rail staff need special treatment not available to members of the public? It creates a very poor impression and sublimely implies trains are not safe.
One argument is that staff are at work so more stringent ‘Health & Safety At Work’ Act rules apply for them than to passengers who are not at work. That sounds a very ‘jobsworth’ argument to me. What about those “essential workers” in hospitals using the trains to get to work who were our top priority in Spring 2020? What are they supposed to do now?
It’s muddled mixed messaging.
The Train Manager sat in splendid isolation in the rear cab for the journey – where you’d think there would also be a socially distanced “aisle” type seat for any other crew member needing to travel “on the cushions”.
Then on my Northern operated two coach Class 150 from Denby Dale to Sheffield it was another extreme with an energetic Guard rushing up and down the busy train selling tickets to boarding passengers as well as having to keep darting back to the rear of the train to open and close the doors at each station.
It made me wonder how it can be that a TPE member of staff can’t even sit among passengers while travelling as a passenger but a Northern one can sell tickets to passengers and deal with their queries and questions up and down a crowded train.
I felt sorry for him, not least because I was taken aback at just how poor mask wearing was among passengers boarding in Barnsley and travelling to stations down to Sheffield. He never let up in trying to get to everyone to sell a ticket even though about at least half a dozen escaped his clutches.
Next my East Midlands Railway train from Sheffield to St Pancras had a small number of passengers occupying the first class areas where I’d treated myself to a ride south thanks to a bargain advanced purchase on the EMR website last week. Our tickets were impressively checked by the ‘hostess’ as she served us a hot drink and minuscule packet of Pretzels almost immediately on leaving Sheffield.
I noticed the woman sitting across the gangway from me had a standard class ticket but offered to pay the weekend upgrade (EMR thankfully haven’t joined the scam that is SeatFrog) and was advised by the ‘hostess’ the Train Manager would have to sell that to her and he’d be around soon. He wasn’t, He never appeared and neither did we get another drink on the 2 hour journey.
Finally, from St Pancras it was back home on Thameslink to Hassocks and luckily the journey I caught wasn’t cancelled. This was an uneventful journey until East Croydon when three unmasked young adults joined the rear declassified first class section and started booming out music to the whole rear end of the train from a portable sound system.
Which brought an interesting contrasting day of mixed messaging experiences to an end. If I wasn’t a dedicated ‘bus and train user’ I’d be seriously thinking of taking the car next time.
The railways have got a long way to go if they’re intent on attracting passengers back. Some consistency in messaging might help. As would mandating mask wearing.