@stillawake On A Train

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I like the way Joanna’s Twitter name makes the title suggest she’s awake on the train… anyhow. Today I have a guest blog post from Joanna Papageorgiou. Joanna is a researcher into higher education with an interest in statistics, politics and media. She writes a blog, www.ephemeraldigest.co.uk which, happily, has a section called ‘Transported‘ in which she writes about her commute by train from Bristol. In this post she talks trains versus time.


In December 2009, I was running for the morning train through the dark and rainy streets of Bristol. The time was just before seven and the train doors were beginning to close as I sprinted towards the barriers. The guard used his pass to let me through the gate then pointed towards the end of the train while the manager held the remaining open door for me.

The train left only a few seconds late that morning because of efforts at Bristol Temple Meads. I was so enthused by the wonderful treatment that my compliments were effusive on Twitter. The response from some was that at least the staff were nice this once. I realised, however, that there had been very few bad days overall. One majestic event out of a series of pretty okay ones travelling over four years.

The inside of the train is usually warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I tend to get a seat and occasionally have the privilege of having a table to myself. The waiting part is the worst because not only is it indeterminate but the standing around is done outside. Buses are more variable in their service, probably due to traffic and other urban centre issues. Trains seem to be better at getting there.

This isn’t just anecdotal information; the annual public performance measures by the Office of Rail Regulation backs up my memories with data. A train is defined as being “on time” if it arrives within five minutes or ten minutes of the planned destination arrival time.

The service I use is now run by CrossCountry but was run by Virgin. In Quarter 2, the on time measures were 89.9% for 2008/09 and 91.8% for 2009/10. Compare that to Virgin whose on time statistics were 81.9% for 2008/09, a huge difference, especially for anyone waiting out in the cold. However even they have improved to around 90%.

When everything runs on time, and that includes my waking up, I can be home in Bristol by 6.30pm. Other times, of course, it’s not that easy.

I remember a winter three years ago when I was still reading my Terry Pratchett book at 8pm in the snow while waiting for the Virgin train which didn’t want to arrive.

I went home through Newport once because the track to Bristol had to be closed off. There was snow and ice on the tracks that closed off the Severn Tunnel. This made a morning’s journey much longer (the slow journey behind a regional train that extended the 42 minutes into over 160) but provided some beautiful Welsh scenery. These tales of woe, however, are sparse. In February 2009, the snow in England which shut down most work places, was mostly ignored by the trains. Although I was warned to avoid travelling by a colleague who arrived in Cheltenham and couldn’t get to work because the buses had been stopped. He’d paused for a coffee then gone back home.

The commute may not be as lovely a journey as that on the Orient Express but it’s usually a nice break from reality and punctuated by a cup of coffee and a good book.