Empty Seats - an insight into commuting by rail

Tuesday 2nd October, 2012
For 16 years I commuted to work by car. I always loved driving and have had the good fortune to be able to own a rather nice selection of fine motors along the way. The last 10 years of my career saw me commuting from my home town of Addlestone to Epsom, the home of the Derby. Initially I was somehow able to do that journey in 20-25 minutes but, over the years, increases in traffic stole a minute here and there. It reached a point towards the end where I realised that, whilst I finished work at 6pm, I rarely got home before 7pm.

Extra traffic lights, extra cyclists and changes in traffic light phasing all led to traffic getting progressively slower. The slower it got, the more people took to their cycles, slowing average traffic speeds further still. Surrey's roads aren't really suited to two lanes of cars as well as cyclists. It may take several miles to safely pass a cyclist, only for him to illegally undertake you further up the road. In the end, despite having a lovely £50k Lexus to do the journey in, I realised I simply wasn't enjoying it any more.

If I have to allow an hour for every journey to/from work, I may as well get the train. I've always made sure I live walking distance from the station, just in case this day arrived, and it did. I quit my job and headed off to the big lights of the City.

I feared the worst. Over the years I've heard frequent tales of delays, cancellations, no seats and missed connections. What was I letting myself in for?

My new job, based in St. Paul's, would see me get three different trains. Firstly, I'd catch the train from Addlestone to Weybridge. These run twice an hour and connect with the train coming from Woking that takes me in to Waterloo. From there, I jump on the Waterloo & City line to Bank from which I walk to the office. If I get the 07:02 train from Addlestone, connecting at 07:11 for the "semi-fast" train that goes fast from Surbiton, I'll be in Waterloo by 07:49. On a good day, I'll be in the city in about an hour. Perfect.

On the way home, the train leaves at twenty past or ten to the hour connecting 37mins later at Weybridge for the 07 or 37 train to Addlestone. A bit longer on the way home as it stops at more stations, but acceptable, and will get me home in time for the children's bedtime.

After doing this journey for around 4 months, I'm genuinely astounded by the service. I've not been late for work, not once. Every Addlestone departure has been within on minute of schedule and never failed to meet the train in Weybridge, which has always been on time. On the way home, I've missed a few trains myself but only perhaps twice has it missed my connection beyond my control. Problems happen and, trust me, if you'd driven the Surrey roads for the past 16 years, you'd realise that the M25 and surrounding routes are considerably less reliable.

Oddly, however, I see constant complaints about South West Trains on twitter. Often retweeted by @my6percent, these are frequently complaints from people who use the same Woking-Waterloo route as myself. The most common gripe appears to be about seats, or lack thereof, usually from people who get on in Woking. Which is somewhat confusing, as I get the Woking-Waterloo service myself and it leaves Woking with only about 1 in 10 seats occupied, if that.

Today's complaint came from @angelaboodoo who reckons all the Woking trains never have any seats. She was so adamant about this, despite photos of empty seats to the contrary, that she even went so far as blocking me on twitter. She's not the first Woking commuter to get angry with me on this topic, for some reason they just don't seem to be able to handle the truth.

So why the totally contrasting opinions? Let me explain...after a picture of some empty seats, seen earlier today.

The service I catch each morning at Weybridge takes 47 minutes to get from Woking, where it starts, to Waterloo where it ends. For those who board at one of the six stations in-between - like Weybridge, Walton-on-Thames or Esher -  this is the fastest way to Waterloo. The closer you get to London, the cheaper the total price you pay. But in contrast, the closer you get to London, the lower your chances of getting a seat.

Let's over analyse a bit, in the usual way...

Using the handy on-line season ticket calculator, we can see how much a monthly ticket might cost for all of the stops on route. It's hard to work out the exact distance travelled between stops, but we can use the timetable to give us a rough estimate.

The train departs Surbiton direct for Waterloo at 07:27, arriving at 07:49 - a journey time of 22 minutes. Our cheapest monthly ticket comes up at £157.50, or £7.88/day in February based on the minimum 20 working days your ticket may be valid for. This gives us £3.94 for our journey into Waterloo or 17.9 pence per minute travelled and also not much chance of a seat.

Esher passengers are on the train a little longer, departing at 07.22 - a 27 minute journey. Based on a monthly season ticket of £177.80, this makes it £4.45 to get to Waterloo or 16.5 pence per minute. A longer distance, seemingly better value, and a chance of a seat towards the back.

The train departs Hersham at 07:19, making it a 30 minute journey for £191.70 or £4.79 to get to Waterloo each morning. Cheaper still at 15.9p per minute travelled and you should find a seat, if you make an effort.

Walton-on-Thames is a popular station but you'd be very unlucky not to get a seat when boarding here. For the privilege you'll travel three minutes longer, a total of 33 minutes to Waterloo using a monthly season ticket at £202.00 - or £5.05 for our journey to Waterloo. That's 15.3 pence per minute travelled.

The train pulls into Weybridge with almost nobody on board, everybody gets a seat and you can even choose window or aisle as you prefer. Good job though, you're going to be on board for 38 minutes at a cost of £5.52 from your £220.80 per month travel card. That's 14.5 pence per minute.

West Byfleet passengers can't really believe this train came from Woking, there's practically nobody on it except the occasional pregnant woman.  A 42 minute journey for £240/month. That's a round £6/day into Waterloo or 14.3 pence per minute.

Which brings us to our friends in Woking and their £266.90 per month season ticket - £6.67 per day for their journey into Waterloo. That's 47 minutes at 14.2 pence per minute and, as the train originates there, it's empty when it pulls in. You're guaranteed a seat for the lowest price per distance travelled.

Twelve empty carriages sat on a platform but nobody gets on it. Why? Because, whilst to others this is "the train", if you live in Woking this is "the slow train". Woking happens to be on the route of some major inter-city services from the South coast. As a designated connection point for Heathrow, if you're coming up from Portsmouth, Southampton or Bournemouth, you may consider Woking as a route to the airport or the main route in to London.

As stations inside the M25 are served up by the route I covered in detail above, there is little point in the Portsmouth Harbour service stopping again after Woking, so it doesn't. As a result, the Portsmouth service becomes an express from Woking to Waterloo. For the same £6.67/day, Woking passengers can have a few minutes longer in bed and still get to work on time.

It used to be treated as a 20 minute journey from Woking to Waterloo. It's not. The shortest journey, arriving at Waterloo before 9am, is 27 minutes. This is regarded as half an hour by the many who turn their noses up at the "slow train" which "takes an hour". It doesn't though, we already said above that it takes just 47 minutes. With the average journey time from Woking on the "fast train" being 29 minutes, that makes it just 18 minutes faster than the slower, stopping train.

So what does everybody do? They have a few more minutes in bed and then cramp on to the long distance inter-city express. The whole journey from Portsmouth to Waterloo is 1hr 42mins so, unsurprisingly, when it pulls in to Woking it's rather busy. They shove each other out of the way to get to the few seats that may be available and, if they fail, stand in crowded corridors by bins and toilets sending ranting texts to @sw_trains asking why they never get a seat from Woking.

You don't get a seat because 18 minutes is too long for you. As @drlodge put it:

"Thing is, I want to get to work before lunchtime."

Even better, @angelaboodoo explained:

"I don't use the slow service because it adds an extra hour to my journey duh"

Eighteen minutes. EIGHTEEN MINUTES. It's apparently an hour, if you live in Woking.

I personally know exactly what 18 minutes is, as it's precisely how soon I arrive at my office before I am due to start work. I only get two "slow" trains an hour and, if I get the next one, I will be 12 minutes late. I pay over 2% more than you do for my slightly shorter journey yet you feel the need to complain about the train company because you are fortunate enough to have a busy express service?

David Lodge explains that:

"for customers paying £3k/year, there should be a seat say 95% of time"

David, you get a seat offered 100% of the time. You just have to get the other service that takes an average 18 minutes longer. Trust me, it gives you an extra 18 minutes to laugh at ranting Woking people on twitter.

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