MP Boris Johnson joins commuters in a typically packed corridor on the 7.40 a.m. train to London.
Boris takes the (s)train and finds it’s no joke! In fact, it’s a DISGRACE!
Since train operator First Great Western introduced a new timetable in December, Henley branch line passengers have been complaining bitterly. After two months, two apologies from First Great Western and minor adjustments to the timetable, and with complaints still arriving on his desk, we asked our MP Boris Johnson to find out for himself how bad the situation is. On Monday he rode with the commuters from Henley to London. Here is his account of the journey.
IT’S 6.51 a.m. on a bleak February morning and I’m standing on the platform at Henley station watching a train pull out.
It’s the First Great Western service to London; it’s bang on time, and I’m starting to wonder, frankly, whether the outrage is a bit overdone.
The train is by no means overcrowded. In fact I doubt whether it is more than one eighth full. There’s no-one standing in the loos. There is no one standing at all.
Is this really the service that some Henley commuters have likened to the Black Hole of Calcutta? Are these the travelling conditions that the EU says are unfit for poultry, let alone human beings?
So I go into Tubbies and order some bacon and beans on toast. It seems pretty quiet, I say. Yes, they say. Some people are still on half term. Maybe that’s why it’s quieter than normal.
I start to panic. What if there is no story here? I can’t tell the travelling public of Henley that I have just tried their morning route, and found it to be perfectly comfortable.
At 7.21 a.m. I join David Connop Price from the Henley Standard on the next Twyford train. I confide my fears. What if we discover that the trains are OK? I ask. Look, I say, pointing around the train: there’s bags of room. David gulps. Like me, he can see our story disappearing.
No editor is going to print a dispatch with the headline, “Trains More Or Less All Right, MP Claims.”The Standard certainly isn’t going to be interested in a report that concludes “First Great Western Timekeeping Pretty Much OK, Survey Shows”.
So we go and ask some experienced travellers. First there is a group of students, Jemima and William Sarson, Mungo Jackson and Tom Walden, all on their way to Reading School. You must be joking, they say. The service is abominable, and the London train is always packed.
You may have a seat in Parliament Mr. Johnson, but I don’t think you’ll get on on this train.
Then we find Peter Moody, who is familiar to me as one of my regular email correspondents. What does he think of the service? I am afraid he uses a four letter word, beginning with C and ending with P.
“It’s been progressively worse since they changed the timetable in December. There are fewer trains, less choice and there is massive overcrowding both ways.
“On the way back to Henley this evening 90 per cent of us will be standing up, on both the 6.14 p.m. and the 7.14 p.m.”
The real test, he says, will be when we change at Twyford. So David and I change trains at Twyford, and my alarm rises. We’re now on the London train — against which Henley people have directed their most furious invective — and once again we seem to be surrounded by empty seats.
We find another commuter, Steve Pain of Middle Assendon, and he laughs as he understands our mistake. We’ve got on the wrong train! This is the slow train. It stops all over the place, and it doesn’t get to London for another 50 minutes.
Most people simply must be at their desks by 9 a.m., and they can’t afford to catch this one. We should have crossed over at Twyford and got the 7.40 a.m. train to London, he says.
But why aren’t you on the fast train? we ask Steve, who works in the City. He laughs again. “Catch that train?”he says. He wouldn’t dream of it. He has decided that he would much rather spend longer on the train, reading and thinking, than be penned in that cattle truck.
David and I are starting to feel foolish. We seem to have found just about the only uncrowded First Great Western service in England. Then it hits us. We just change at Maidenhead, and then we can pick up the train in question, the nightmare service from which Steve Pain is a refugee. Then at last we will be able to judge how bad the service really is.
So we change at Maidenhead, and wait for the fast London train. As soon as it pulls in, I feel my disbelief rising, There is a huge crowd on the platform, and the train is already so full that people are standing.
As the doors open, a queue forms; or not so much a queue as a wedge shaped formation, and one by one the commuters behind force the commuters in front up the steps and into the train. Then the commuters in the doorway start pushing the commuters in the corridor, until the entire corridor is rigid with humanity. It is worse than the Tokyo subway. It is like watching a bolus of food being pressed down the neck of a Strasbourg goose.
Soon David and I are wedged tight on a train designed to seat 277 people — but which must hold well over 400. There is no way of counting them. You simply couldn’t move down the cars.
“I don’t think I have ever got a seat on this one,”says Natalie Gee, who got on at Twyford. It seems unbelievable that she has a £3,380 season ticket from Twyford to Paddington, and yet First Great Western will not offer her a seat. She has no choice but to get this train, because she would otherwise be too late for work.
At last, like a great fat man eating an After Eight at the end of an enormous binge, the train accepts the last passenger. The doors squeeze shut. The Adelante non-stop service from Maidenhead to London lumbers off, some six or seven minutes late, and the passenger complement sways with the motion. We are jammed hip to hip, nose to nape.
After about ten minutes it isn’t just the crush that amazes me. It is the stoicism. There is a kind of blitz spirit. People make jokes about First Great Western, Did you hear how they said it was safer to be on a crowded train? Apparently the bodies cushion the blow. Ho ho ho.
But when we get to London (about seven or eight minutes late), you can feel their sense of relief and excitement as they get out at last. It is as if they have all been obliged to hold their breath underwater. And then David and I go to look at the train as it waits on the platform, before turning round and heading for Exeter. There are only five coaches. There are five coaches for this enormous crowd of people, many of whom have been paying £5,000 or more for their season tickets. That isn’t a joke. That is a scandal. It is a disgrace. And First Great Western has absolutely no excuse.
For more details see The Henley Standard.