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She’s (not) got a ticket to ride

April 2, 2014

It’s the announcement that every commuter dreads – “We are sorry to announce that the train you had intended to get home has been delayed, and you will now spend the next ten minutes/three hours waiting expectantly on a platform, unsure whether it’s worth the risk to join the increasingly growing queue for a Costa, before you are instructed to make a hasty and unexpected platform change. Thanks for travelling with [insert name of train operator here]. You didn’t want to get home for anything important, did you?”

The fact one train has been cancelled and the next delayed means my day will culminate in a scrum of elbows and knees in the push to get on to the train as it finally chugs wearily into the station. Although about 20 people get out of the carriage, there are at least three times as many people wishing to board. Even once people have filtered into all the seats, all the way into the carriage and the aisle, there is barely room to stand, and faces are pressed against armpits, briefcases wedged into backs, and someone’s umbrella is pressing uncomfortably against my thigh. At least I hope it’s an umbrella.

Resigning myself to spending the next 20 minutes in a fug of damp overcoats, stale cigarette smoke and the 6pm sweats, I glance to my left and spot an oasis of calm and comfort. The soft yellow lighting of the first class carriage subtly beckons, the empty seats and clear, un-fusty air prove too much. Excuse me, I say to the general tangle of arms and phones and hair, and push my way through. It’s like emerging from the womb (I imagine), and taking my first few breaths of fresh air, free from the clagging amniotic fluids of the mass. Except, this brave new world into which I’ve stumbled doesn’t want me here. People’s bags (expensive rucksacks, the kind with the cross-laced elastic cords over the front, which no one ever uses) are more welcome on the seats than I am, and when I ask a man if I can sit down, I can tell from his frown, his hesitation, and the reverent way in which he reluctantly moves his bag on to the floor, that he is screaming out to check my ticket and see if I am entitled to be in this first class carriage of comfort.

The other passengers (all three of them in a carriage that seats sixteen) glance up from their newspapers. A man with his shoes off glances sympathetically at my neighbour, whose bag is now forced to suffer the lint of the carpet. One looks pointedly at the door to the driver’s cab, as though willing the conductor to burst through, so they can point and say, “This intruder has not paid to be here! Seize her at once!”

I begin to compose my response, should said conductor come through.

No, I do not have a first class ticket. It’s actually impossible to purchase a first class ticket for the 20 minute journey I am undertaking. I have instead got a standard class ticket, which I buy every day, and for which I am generally guaranteed one journey in which I will find a seat. My return journey sometimes affords me a seat, or a space in the luggage compartment, if the kids are off school, or if I travel later than usual. Not only is this train over-subscribed, dirty and cold, it is cut in half when it reaches Cambridge station, so that the remainder can chug back to London, earning more money, whilst the front half is stuffed full of people, who generally pay even more money than I do, for the privilege of getting home. People are forced to sit on floors, be propped against doors and walls, for an hour or more whilst those who schedule such trains sit in their cosy offices, before getting into their cars and driving home again.

If you don’t have time to purchase a ticket before getting on the train (due to the frequency with which the ticket machines break down, and the fact there are barely any ticket windows open) you are made to feel like a criminal as the conductor notes your name and address and applies a hefty fine. The trains are late, cancelled regularly, or (my personal favourite) lock their doors up to a minute before departure, leaving you fruitlessly pressing the button to open the carriage as it sits stationary on the platform, and the station attendant tells you it’s to improve punctuality. Mine, presumably.

I don’t mind taking the train. The last time I attempted to drive to work it took me two hours (it was snowing), and we have limited car parking space at work, which is afforded to those who come from further away. I appreciate that not all services can run on time, that there will always be incidents and delays, and accidents, both human and mechanical. I even understand there will be annual price hikes – nothing is getting cheaper.

What I do object to – strongly – is that whichever train you get on to, be it during rush hour or in the dead of night, for a short or long journey, there is always a first class compartment, and it is always nearly empty. Even when the rest of humanity has its face pressed against a steamed-up window, fold-up bikes tucked awkwardly into its groin, and babies dribbling down its neck, in some part of the train there will be a middle-aged man in a pinstripe suit with his shoes off, sipping a cup of coffee. In an outdated, archaic and elitist system that has no place in modern society, people in wheelchairs and with pushchairs have less space and fewer rights than someone with a fat wallet and the ability to throw their weight around. Tourists spending money and commuters supporting the economy are subjected to a shoddy, sporadic and uncertain service, for which they pay dearly. Granted, the first classers pay even more, but their compartments are never more than half-full, and surely cannot pay their way.

And the reason they get away with it is because the train companies know that on over-stuffed services, people without first class tickets will go and sit in the first class compartment, ready to argue the toss (I’m so ready), and so not only are the regular passengers getting screwed, but so too are the people who have paid a premium, because look – here’s a girl without a first class ticket sitting in a first class seat! There is not a single person on this train right now who is not pissed off!

The solution, obviously, is more frequent trains, bigger carriages, and better and more efficient planned routes. All this costs money, and perhaps it’s the exorbitant fares that those sitting in this carriage have paid that will bring about this change. But I can’t help thinking that if this carriage were to be changed into a regular one, with space for probably 30 people to sit down, and more to stand in comfort, there would be less of an issue. Everyone deserves a modicum of comfort (not to mention safety) when they’re travelling to and from work, regardless of how much they’re getting paid.

The ticket conductor didn’t come round. I think we were all disappointed. When I reached my stop I thanked the man next to me for so generously moving his bag – I actually meant it. For a first class compartment, it was really quite dusty. It’ll take his housekeeper ages to get it clean.

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