Pains, Trains and Other Disasters

by MaxPower

Living in London, I have had new exposure to the world of public transit. Before, my only experiences were the bus to school and the occasional light rapid transit ride to and from a sporting event. In London, and more generally Europe, public transit, usually in the form of trains and/or subway (metro) services is the norm rather than the exception.

As an estimated one million people commute in and out of London each working day there is a fairly comprehensive system of trains which shuttle workers into the city. This is also a function of the insanely priced houses in the greater London area. This could be another R4nt, but to give you an idea – £300,000 (which is about $700,000 CDN or $475,000 US) will buy you a small 2-bedroom walk-up (semi-detached) flat in central London. So naturally, with this scale of housing prices, many people commute from the outer reaches of London.

For a system that a huge amount of people rely upon, there is a large amount of turmoil and financial instability whereby the system is slowly collapsing in upon itself. I for one take SouthWest Trains, one of the largest commuter networks in the UK and these are my experiences.

Some people I have spoken to gush about the UK train system, ‘oh I wish North America had a similar system’. Granted many areas connected by trains allow for ease of transportation in the UK. Yet this is not exactly suited to North America, where long distances necessitate a huge amount of infrastructure money which is needed to lay down a relatively high-speed track between large North American cities. These people often only have the experience of taking inter-city trains and compared to commuter trains it is like comparing driving a car to riding a horse in the rain, and the horse has a broken leg, and its cold outside, and the horse is dead.

To provide an example, SouthWest Trains recently had the dubious honour of being declared the most tardy commuter train network in the UK. Only 72% of its services arrived ‘on-time’. Ahhh but read the fine print, on-time really means late by less than 15 minutes, when the lateness is not caused by vandalism, emergencies, and the like. I’m sorry on a trip that should take 45 minutes, 15 minutes late is late not on time. Sometimes the stations will announce reasons for the late running of the trains, this is a sample of the reasons I have been given for my trains being late, they are all true and I am not making any of these up.

Sun on the tracks – this was a good one, happened during the summer, and it was about plus 30, but I didn’t think the sun was strong enough to melt steel. The train companies excuse was that it slowed the efficiency of the brakes down.

Rain on the tracks – now I wonder if it’s just me, but it rains almost every day in London… Rain on the tracks also causes problems with the brakes apparently. Perhaps someone should look at the design of these brakes.

Leaves on the tracks – an all time favourite, not only do the train companies complain endlessly about leaves on the tracks, they also brought in a new ‘Fall Leaf Season Timetable’ which extended journey time artificially. For example my normal daily commute should take 45 minutes, and it was extended to an hour. So the 15-minute lateness was already built in, but then it was often 15-30 minutes late on top of this! When I asked about this policy and the dumbass nature of this excuse I was told, that the leaves fall and get run over by the train and it forms a paste which makes the tracks slippery. Ok fine, but this is no bullet train, I doubt you get up to more than 30KPH on most days.

Frost on the tracks – starting to see a pattern here? The problem is that the tracks are owned by a separate company called ‘Railtrack’ so the train companies always blame any problem on the system. Anyway, frost makes the tracks slippery and decreases speed, or so I am told. You know trains cross the Rockies, I wonder if they have the same problem. My English co-workers told me that if it ever snows, stay in bed.

Poor rail conditions – see blaming Railtrack above.

The wrong type of electricity – I kid you not, this one even made it into the papers the next day. Apparently there was a problem with a converter and it started sending the wrong volts or something.

Train Speed Limits – I don’t know, sometimes, not always though, there are limits to the speed the trains can travel. This usually seen as the trains run at half speed for the journey.

Lateness of the inbound train – thanks this explains a lot. This is the excuse they usually give if they don’t really know why the train is late.

And finally I have had a couple other experiences, sometimes when the train is really late (like more than an hour late) the train company will summarily drop station stops. Great for those whose stop is still called, bad for those whose station is small and gets dropped, like me! I have also had an incident where the train dropped a call and when we slowed down to go by the platform that was dropped, someone pulled the emergency cord. The train slammed to a stop and all I hear is a bunch of doors slammed shut as people make a run for it. Problem being it delayed the train another 20 minutes as the conductor walked around to see if there was a reason for the cord being pulled.

My record is 3.5 hours late on a 45-minute journey. Makes that 30-minute car ride usual in North America seem like gravy. For this privilege I pay 385 bucks CDN a month.

Addendum: After my Christmas break I come back to find that on January 3rd, 4th, 7th and 8th there are train strikes, so I’m still not sure how I’ll get into work. Strikes are just another pleasure of European public transit. Sweet.

  • Pains, Trains and Other Disasters
  • by MaxPower
  • Published on January 1st, 2002

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