Monday, 4 December 2017

Northern Fail

I mix up my commute to work, alternating between cycling in and catching the train. I'm on a Northern Rail route on the train and generally on the A6 on the bicycle. The only other alternative cycle commute route being the canal tow path which at this time of year is a slithery muddy mess designed to get you into work in filthy clothes you'll need to put back on to ride home in. It's also dark, and with the added slosh, the opportunities to end up in the canal are greatly increased. As a woman alone, it also feels like I'm taking an unnecessary risk of encounter with someone who might randomly wish me ill.

I alternate depending on which journey, the bicycle or the train was more unpleasant last time I travelled to work.

The bike offers up a route so clogged with traffic, lorries, buses, that even the most accomplished filterer in the world cannot get through Hazel Grove in a fashion which feels even bordering on safe. Even stuck not moving in the middle of tightly packed traffic I feel intensely vulnerable. When there's a bus in front of you, a lorry next to the bus, a lorry behind you, and cars in the outside lane, nobody moving until the lights change, the vulnerability of my position is more than just mild discomfort. What if the lorry behind me has got so close to me he can no longer see me, what if he forgets I'm there? What if he's impatient and I don't set off quickly enough? What if a car doesn't see me inside them because they are looking for something larger and moves into the lane where I am, thinking I'm actually a space? What if the bus in front does something random and I'm sucked under its wheels. What happens at the next bus stop? How can I get myself to safety? The answer tends to be get off, get on the pavement and walk. This is massively slow - after all, what kind of commute of 16 miles is efficient when you're walking? Am I ever going to get to work? It's not that I'm in a massive hurry but there's the difference between what's a reasonable commuting timescale and what isn't. Any mode of commute which takes nearer to 90 minutes than 60 is not acceptable in my eyes, for my work-life balance. So I get scared off the bike and I catch the train.

The train. It too has many many many drawbacks. Firstly, there is a daily cost of near £10, somewhat more than the cost of cycling. It's more costly than driving too, which in my eyes makes it something I can only tolerate doing 2 times a week. Any more than that and the weekly ticket of around £28 is the way forwards, and when I do that, I feel defeated somehow.  The train service is appalling. It really is. Even with my two return journeys a week, my expertise in operating the Delay Repay system is telling about the tragedy of the thing.

The things which drive me most nuts are the operational decisions over number of carriages. I can understand a little bit when they are genuinely short of carriages and send two out on a rush hour service that normally fills four. What I find intensely irritating is the trains which they only ever schedule as two carriages. The stopping train from Sheffield to Manchester is a case in point. I don't believe that Northern Rail have any kind of way of knowing how many people get on the service from Manchester in the evening rush hour. What I know is that standing at Ashburys station awaiting the train due at 16:53 is pointless. I don't know why they schedule it to stop because nobody gets off and nobody can possibly get on. I sometimes wonder if it's a way of Northern being able to say there are trains at Ashburys x number of times an hour. On paper, I have three possible trains home from Ashburys

1. The 16:53 which I can't get on but which should get me to New Mills for 17:19
2. 17:09 where I change at Romiley for a train scheduled to arrive there at 17:34 but which oddly is always 10 minutes late. This should get me home for 17:44 but I'm generally still at Romiley then, awaiting my train.
3. 17:37 which should get me back for 18:05 but has been late on every single occasion I've ever caught it.

It's a little infuriating, this on paper 27 - 30 minute journey which has not one single time got me from A to B in that time. Northern really need to try harder to understand their own service needs, and customer volumes. Travelling on the 16:53 train for starters, or perhaps seeking feedback from the guards on a systematic basis. Planning, organising, acknowledging and accepting.

So, I submit complaints via their website. I put forward suggestions. I plead with them to look at their service needs, to understand that the Sheffield train should be a four carriage not a two carriage train. They schedule it as two, and there seems to be no way of shifting them from this thinking. No way at all. They don't even seem to understand it as a suggestion, always coming back with a "we use all available carriages" explanation. That's not an explanation as to why it's actually scheduled as a two carriage. It's a beating head against a wall thing to try to get them to know, to deeply, truly know their own service needs. I have no idea how to influence change on this. Nobody can do anything and nobody will take this seriously. It's infuriating. If I ride home from work, leaving at somewhere around 17:15 I am reliably home for somewhere between 18:30 and 18:45, pretty much identical to the time I get there on any of the three services above, except that the train sometimes gets me home for after 19:30 and on the bike I've never been that late.

I don't know how to get Northern Rail to listen and how to influence change. I really don't.

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