In December 2009, I was running for the morning train through the dark and rainy streets of Bristol. The time was just before seven and the train doors were beginning to close as I sprinted towards the barriers. The guard used his pass to let me through the gate and then pointed towards the end of the train while the manager held the remaining open door for me.
The train left a few seconds late that morning because of the efforts at Bristol Temple Meads. I was so enthused by the wonderful treatment that my compliments were effusive on Twitter. The response from some was that at least the staff were nice this once. I realised, however, that there had been very few bad days overall. That was one magical event in a series of pretty ok travelling over four years.
The inside of the train is usually warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I tend to get a seat and occasionally have the privilege of having a table to myself. The waiting part is the worst because not only is it indeterminate but the standing around is done outside. Buses are more variable in their service probably due to traffic and other urban centre issues. Trains seem to be better at getting there.
This isn’t just anecdotal information; the annual public performance measures by the Office of Rail Regulation backs up my memories with data. A train is defined as being “on time” if it arrives within five minutes or ten minutes of the planned destination arrival time.
The service I use is now run by CrossCountry but was run by Virgin. In Quarter 2, the on time measures were 89.9% for 2008/09 and 91.8% for 2009/10. Compare that to Virgin whose on time statistics were 81.9% for 2008/09, a huge difference, especially for anyone waiting out in the cold. However even they have improved to around 90%.
When everything runs on time, and that includes my waking up, I can be home in Bristol by 6.30pm. Other times, of course, it’s not that easy.
I remember a winter three years ago when I was still reading my Terry Pratchett book at 8pm in the snow while waiting for the Virgin train which didn’t want to arrive. I went home through Newport once because the track to Bristol had to be closed off. There was snow and ice on the tracks that closed off the Severn Tunnel and made a morning’s journey much longer but provided some beautiful Welsh scenery and the slow journey behind a regional train that extended the 42 minutes into over 160. These tales of woe, however, are sparse and in between. In February 2009, the snow in England which shut down most work was mostly ignored by the trains although I was warned to avoid travelling by a colleague who arrived in Cheltenham and couldn’t get to work because the buses had been stopped. He paused for a coffee and then went back home.
The commute may not be as lovely a journey as those on the Orient Express but it’s usually a nice break from reality and punctuated by a cup of coffee and a good book.
Today is Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) day and it is dire news for commuters. According to the Daily Telegraph, “Mr Osborne asked the Department for Transport to prepare for cuts of anywhere between 25% and 40% to its annual budget of £15.9 billion” before today’s announcement. The Association of Train Operating Companies said that “money from train tickets pays for around half the cost of running the railways with the rest coming from the taxpayer.” The media have anticipated that the government plans to shift the costs to the passengers and we saw a lot of that in the details.
The current rate of increase for tickets is the Retail Price Index (RPI) plus one per cent which in September 2010 stands at 4.6% (down from 4.7% in August). This will increase to RPI + 3% for three years up to 2012. As we read in the CSR “some public transport fare increases will be unavoidable. This will include raising rail fares where necessary” (p.31).
The Channel 4 economics editor, Faisal Islam, wrote four days ago that the increases to rail faire could be 30 to 40% in four years. He seems to be right. The increase will not be put in place until 2012 and there is some wishful thinking about inflation falling but there is no guarantee of this.
The department of Transport will implement “overall resource savings of 21 per cent by 2014-15. … Bus subsidy will be reduced by 20 per cent and local government resource grants by 28 per cent” (p.46).
The number of people this would affect is a huge amount. An estimate of South West workers who travel by rail to work in 2008 suggests that the numbers are over 12,000. The number of bus travellers is twice that. For a glimpse of some bigger effects we need only look at travellers into the London, one of the major commuter routes from Bristol, with 510,000 people entering the city in that same year using bus or rail.
My own costs would increase by a huge amount. I currently commute by bus and train at a cost of around £5000 pre-tax. A 40% increase by the end of 2016 would mean a year-on-year pay cut as the costs increase to around £7000. That doesn’t make rail travel much of an affordable option.
On Monday I was in Brussels to meet the rest of the bloggers / students / journalists that are taking part in the TH!NK3 Development competition. I attended a conference on Tuesday and by the afternoon I was waiting at the Grand Place for my sister and a lift to the airport. I sat on the kerb in front of the pretty white building and either took photos or just listlessly waited, head on hands. Now and then I caught the eye of a guy sitting a little further down from me and also on his own. We were two among many tourists sitting around and he came up to me and asked if I was travelling alone like him and whether I fancied exploring a bit. He said that he had just arrived today and it was getting boring already being on his own. I knew what he meant but I was leaving, so no shared exploring in our foreseeable future. He was from Argentina but lived in London. He had quit his job and had started travelling for the next six months. Now on his own in Brussels he wanted some company with which to share his experience.
I remember feeling the same way on my last day in Barcelona, being so tired at the end of a three day trip mainly involving walking and having no one with whom to share it. Not sure if it was a lonely feeling but there was something lacking, an empty space. Sitting at the Old Vic last November, holding on to the second ticket for a friend who never showed up, more empty space. Trying to find someone to use the spare ticket to Alphabeat last October, the Miserable Rich / Random Family, Two Door Cinema Club, failing to see the Counting Crows in London a few years back, and on and on. Well, I recently gave up with the idea of a second ticket. I’m not buying them anymore. If there’s something I want to see I will go on my own.
At breakfast with friends recently, we were talking about how there are certain events for which you need company. Going to bars/pubs, a restaurant, what’s the point of coffee on your own? Not sure that I agree with all of those. When going for coffee on my own I can linger for a few hours with my notepad / laptop for company. There is so much to do, to write, to think. There is no irritation at the silence, no one demanding attention and no one rushing to head off. After a while (months, years) of doing just that I can see that it’s not that easy. There’s a whole different niceness to lingering with someone else. Alone is nice and company is also nice. My compromise is to enjoy the company when it’s there, and indeed be more than excited by it, while at the same time stop worrying about that empty seat. Next goal is to accept, embrace and acknowledge the space by going somewhere like New York. Barcelona faded into a slight emptiness but I came away with over a thousand pictures to play with. Not a bad consequence of travelling alone. Now just have to sort out the pictures from Brussels and create some space for the ones from my next trip.
Posted in coffee, stillawake, TH!NK3, travelling
Tagged alone, Barcelona, Brussles, coffee, New York, Photography, TH!NK3, travelling