Since I have been living in Nuneaton for the past year, I have been commuting to Birmingham almost every day. One of the major factors which influenced our decision to buy a house in Nuneaton were the good rail links to Birmingham and Leicester, and it is true that on paper at least, the train service looks quite impressive with two trains in each direction every hour.
Unfortunately, the reality is somewhat less impressive. The evening services in particular are frequently so crowded that there isn’t even standing space for all the people who want to get on, and if I had been given a pound for every time I was wedged into the vestibule area unable to move and with a businessman’s armpit in my face – well, I wouldn’t quite have enough cash to give up work yet, but I would certainly be able to order Tim’s Christmas present
It was influenced by these experiences that I wrote the following complaint to Cross Country trains a couple of weeks ago.
Dear Cross Country,
I am becoming increasingly frustrated by the inadequate service provided by your company between the towns of Birmingham and Leicester.
I commute on this route every day, normally catching the 17.52 from Birmingham New Street.
Whilst I recognise that this is a peak time commuter train and that it is therefore likely that I will have to stand, there were two occasions last week when the standing conditions were utterly unacceptable due to the volume of people and luggage that had been allowed onto the train.
For a long time I have failed to understand why your company persists in running two carriages on this particular service, when you must be quite clearly aware that it is a route which would benefit from three carriages during the rush hour. Indeed, I find it quite laughable that the driver is forced to apologise every day for the “cramped conditions” given that I have never known the conditions to be any different. It is equally ridiculous when passengers are required to get off the service at Water Orton or Coleshill Parkway in order to allow other people to leave the train.
I am convinced that there must be a legal limit of passengers per carriage above which it is not safe for your train to operate and I am equally convinced that the 17.52 train regularly exceeds this limit. There was one occasion last week where a member of rail staff at Birmingham was standing in front of the doors to my carriage, trying to prevent additional passengers from boarding for their own safety. Despite his best efforts, in the seconds before boarding another few people managed to push their way one, including a gentleman carrying bulky musical instruments. This was clearly extremely inappropriate in the circumstances.
I would suggest that Cross Country consider implementing a system to better control and manage the number of passengers who board each service. Perhaps restrictions should be introduced on travelling with bicycles/push chairs/excessive baggage at peak times. Perhaps there should be staff at platform entrances to count the number of people onto each service. Perhaps only passengers with specific tickets should be able to board specific services. Perhaps you should stop calling at Water Orton – it is somewhat unfair, after all, if people who live in Water Orton (to which there is a perfectly good bus service from Birmingham) fill up the train so that those travelling to Leicester (who have no bus option available) are not able to board. Or perhaps you should launch a fundraising campaign so that we can all contribute towards the third carriage which you evidently cannot currently afford.
Given my extreme lack of success when complaining to Cross Country about rail replacement buses a few years ago, I was rather astonished to actually receive the following reply:
Thank you for getting in touch. We received your email on 11 October 2010.
I am sorry that you find the 17:52 service between Birmingham New Street and Leicester is regularly overcrowded. As we operate a ‘walk on service’ any passenger can board a train at any time. However, I can assure you that our staff will regularly assess how many passengers are on-board throughout the journey and stop more passengers boarding as appropriate. Many passengers would prefer to stand rather than being made to wait for the next available service and we have to cater for those too. This is why we will sometimes allow passengers to continue to board.
However, I can appreciate that is must be frustrating as the 17:52 service appears to be extremely busy on a regular basis. We are limited somewhat by the amount of trains we have available and all of our trains are currently in service so we don’t have any spare trains to be able to currently make this a three coach service. If we were to take a train from somewhere else on the network then this would most likely result in an overcrowded service elsewhere.
I’m afraid withdrawing stops from some of our services is not an option either. Selected service between Birmingham and Leicester currently stop at Water Orton which has been agreed with the Department for Transport. This service level forms part of our franchise agreement so it’s not possible to make any less stops at Water Orton.
But, we do look closely at the likely numbers of passengers on each train as part of our timetable review. And if we have the opportunity to incorporate a longer train on this service then we will make those changes. I will certainly make sure that the information you provided forms part of this review.
Thank you once again for taking the time to get in touch.
I thought that was actually rather a good response, particularly given that my complaint was a little on the rude side, so I was going to left them off the hook. Unfortunately, to add insult to injury, the very next morning my train to Birmingham was delayed. That was enough to push me over the edge and into writing another complaint.
Thank you for your response to my complaint.
I appreciate that many people would prefer to stand rather than wait for the next service. However, there is a limit to the number of passengers who can comfortably and safely stand in any given train carriage and this limit is regularly exceeded on your Birmingham – Leicester services.
Just this morning I was on the (delayed) 07.50 service from Nuneaton – Birmingham, on which the standing passengers were already jam-packed prior to arrival at Coleshill Parkway. The driver asked us all to “move down the train” to allow passengers to board at Coleshill, and most people were good-humoured enough to squeeze even tighter together as requested. However, when the train then stopped at Water Orton and the driver requested that we “move down” again, the atmosphere in my carriage was close to mutiny, even from the seated passengers. There was quite clearly nothing that anyone could do to create more space, short of sitting on somebody else’s lap. The driver nevertheless refused to move from Water Orton on the grounds that there were “another ten passengers waiting to board the train”.
These conditions were not just extremely unpleasant, but clearly unsafe. What chance would any of us have stood in a crash? What would have happened if a child or elderly person were taken ill, or if a member of the public suffered a panic attack from claustrophobia? Suppose a passenger had become violent or abusive? There was absolutely no way a member of your staff could have walked down the carriages to assist with any type of emergency. The train fare on this route is not insignificant and whilst I’m sure the majority of people are realistic enough not to expect that they will always have access to a seat, I think they nevertheless expect to feel safe. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that many transported cattle have better conditions and more space than on some of Cross Country’s commuter routes.
With respect to the 17.52 service in particular, I noted last night that you have a Nottingham service leaving Birmingham New Street at approximately the same time. This appears to have three carriages, in which there were multiple seats vacant as it pulled out of the station last night. Perhaps your strategists could figure out a way to alternate the third carriage with the Leicester service so that regular passengers on each route had a spread of crowded and not so crowded days in the week.
I appreciate that running a successful train service must not be easy, but I have not experienced such problems on any other train operator I regularly travel with. Virgin are very successful at controlling passenger numbers on their Euston – Birmingham services to ensure overcrowding is not severe, and London Midland seem to have an abundance of empty carriages on all of their local routes. Perhaps they would lend you one if you asked nicely!
I must confess that I didn’t expect a response to that one at all, but a response I nevertheless received!
Dear Miss Hunter
Thank you for getting back in touch. We received your email on 13 October 2010.
I can fully understand your concerns about the amount of people travelling on some of our trains. Although there is no legal limit on how many people can board a train, the staff on board will regularly look at how many are boarding and alighting from the train. If they believe health and safety is at risk then they can stop people boarding and also advise station staff (if available) to tell people to catch alternative services. Although some trains can get very busy, your safety would never be put at risk. Manufacturers carry out numerous tests and have to prove that their trains are safe even when they accommodate a large number of standing passengers. Although the Senior Conductor may not be able to get through a busy train, they are trained to deal with any issues regardless of how many people are on board.
Some of our services on this route do get extremely busy and it’s fair to say that we’re aware of the problems this can cause. We have a number of two and three carriage trains which operate on this route and we try to take into account the many demands on our fleet throughout the day and this includes looking at the work schedules of each of our trains. Some trains meet peak demands in both the morning and evening rush hours, while other result in a train running during a period of high morning peak demand but by the time the evening peak comes, it is somewhere completely irrelevant to meeting evening peak demand (and vice versa).
We mainly put a two coach Turbostar train on a service that will have to stop at a short platform (like Whittlesea and Manea) at some point during the day due to its work schedule. As we haven’t got selective door operation fitted to all our fleet, we can’t provide three coach trains on these services. Due to health and safety, we can’t have doors opening on to the side of the track where there is no platform. As well as this, we also have to plan where a train will end the day and how it will be used the following day to meet both demand and restrictions such as stopping at short platforms.
I realise that it must have been frustrating to see a relatively empty three carriage service going to Nottingham – but although this service was quiet on departure from Birmingham New Street, the allocation of a three carriage train will have been done after taking into account passenger numbers late on in this journey and also to meet demand on the other trips that the train will take throughout the day.
However, we are currently carrying out a review of where all our trains are utilised and where it’s possible to provide longer trains where they’re needed then we will do so. In addition to this, each train in turn is returning to the depot for engineering work to install selective door operation fitted which should be completed in the next few months. This will give us a greater freedom of where we can use both our two and three coach trains and will overcome the problem of having to accommodate for stops at shorter platforms.
Thank you once again for taking the time to get in touch.
This employee has obviously been on a training course about how to respond to customer complaints I eventually decided that that was as far as I ought to take the correspondence. I did, however, briefly consider complaining again under a different name. If every single person who catches that train was prepared to make a complaint about it then they might actually be forced to do something. Unfortunately, I suspect most people will do nothing more than grumble quietly to themselves