It’s 1.30 on Friday afternoon. It’s my lunch hour, but I daren’t consider a sandwich. Instead, I am sat on the floor of a GWR train with my laptop, feeling increasingly queasy as I read and write in discomfort.
This is the second time in a month that I have found myself travelling in this manner. The first was in early March, when, despite clearly selecting a specific train from King’s X to Edinburgh, I ended up with nowhere to sit. What had seemed to me like an opportunity to choose whether I had a preference over the TYPE of seat (aisle/window) was actually a question regarding whether or not I wanted a seat to begin with. Well, of course I did, it takes over 5hrs to get from London to Edinburgh and no-one wants to stand for that long.
I ended up first thinking I’d dropped my reservation – despite not having an accompanying reservation my ticket informed me it was not valid without one – before learning from Virgin I’d never had one in the first place. How was this possible, when I’d chosen and booked for a specific service? I was tired, stressed due to work pressures, and physically not in the best of health – and ended up bursting into tears, crammed into corridor space like cattle with a load of students from ghastly places like Peterborough. What should have been the start of a nice relaxing holiday was stressful and upsetting. Virgin’s team were making no effort to find people seats and their online support suggested I walk up and down the crowded train with my luggage looking for one. To add insult to injury, they had a limited menu and few functioning toilets. The best they had to offer me was a patronising take on “sorry”. I arrived in Edinburgh sullen, hungry, and so exhausted I had to change my plans for the following day.
Getting it better the Great Western way
Today, I actually had a reservation – booked more than a month in advance. However, due to distressing personal circumstances I won’t go into here, I wasn’t able to travel on that train. I booked another ticket this morning- and despite trying several different services, there was no way I could get a reservation unless I travelled First Class for over £200. I tried to get reservations on three different services before starting to worry that perhaps they didn’t make reservations for on-the-day travel – the language was unclear I had no option but to take my chances.
This time, I knew I had no reservation and went looking for a seat. I found one that looked as though it hadn’t been claimed – but that was only because the woman who’d booked it waited – bizarrely – almost half an hour to claim it. By which point all but one of the unreserved or unclaimed seats on the train had been taken.
Unlike Virgin, GWR actually put their staff to work finding seats for passengers, asking passengers to point out spare seats next to them to those without seats and making regular announcements about where seats could be found.
For the first three hours of my journey, I moved between seats that were between reservations (sometimes for only 20 minutes) and the corridor. Sometimes the corridor had up to 15 people crammed into it (GWR assure me there is no legal limit to the number of people that can be carried on a train).
Once I had secured a seat, I wanted some food. To get to the cafe several carriages away, I had to hop over buggies with children in them and step over toddlers playing in the aisles. When I tried to place my order I discovered they had signature-only card machines and as my signature has long been obscured due to the fact that card signature strips seem to accommodate few types of ink, I couldn’t get any food. As I braced myself for the return obstacle course, I changed upon one of their managers: like their Twitter staff, she was charming, calming, kind and accommodating. She listened to me, agreed the journey was terrible and gave me vouchers with which to purchase food. In the 30 seconds it took for me to thank her and hand my vouchers over to the cafe they had closed and I had to wait for a whole new stock to be unpacked. The cafe manager was amiable and chatty and did his best to cheer me up. But it was hard to enjoy my food or regain my seat feeling anything less than extreme anxiety. GWR are compensating for a poor service with great staff – but the stress on passengers remains.
Everyone else is doing it – why can’t you?
There are bigger questions here than simply whether staff help people find seats. For example whether train companies should be overbooking long-distance trains in this way – I can see the sense for short journeys, but very few people will actually want to go without a seat for several hours. Or why aren’t ‘you might have to stand for two hours’ seats cheaper , as they are in theatres? Why aren’t they just marked as ‘standing day tickets’ from the outset instead of making people go through the ‘would you like to book a seat’ charade?
There’s also the question of why – in 2017 – they aren’t making wider use of technology:
- Why aren’t they showing live booking data – such as which services have seats available to reserve – on their websites like theatres and cinemas have done for a couple of decades?
- Why – when gig promoters and airlines can manage it – have most train companies failed to discover e-tickets? Only Virgin seem to do this. Travellers shouldn’t have to waste the time they spent getting to the station early so they csn find a seat queuing to collect tickets.
- Why aren’t they designing their apps so people can see which carriages have the most available seating?
- Why aren’t they exploring technologies – well tested in other industries – that would allow them to provide an at-a-glance view of where reservations haven’t been claimed, seats are free/about to become free?
- Why on earth don’t GWR have chip and pin machines when most other places have moved on to contactless?
Any other service provider would either be implementing these measures or would have them in place already. A UK train ticket seems to be just about the only think you can spend over £100 on with no hope of care, customer service, or interest in generating repeat business.