Trains: ‘I pay £339 a month, for the pleasure of being treated like livestock’
PUBLISHED: 19:31 17 December 2019 | UPDATED: 23:26 18 December 2019
When Jacqui Cobbold got a new job, she hoped the train would take the strain. But commuting has proved stressful
So how have the past six or seven weeks been for newbie rail commuter Jacqui Cobbold? "I had a nice image of myself sat quite peacefully, reading my book, rather than sitting in a traffic jam. But actually it's really stressful. From mid-afternoon I'm checking if the trains are running."
She laughs. "They've turned me into a 'crazy commuter'… they really have. I'm normally quite placid!"
Less than two months of commuting from Suffolk to Cambridge have left her vexed about delays, cancellations, missing carriages and - particularly - enduring "rugby-scrums" to claim a place onboard.
She worked at baby-care product firm Philips Avent for four years, but its plant near Sudbury is winding down towards closure. So Jacqui started a new job in Cambridge.
The historic city is no place for a car. Rail would be her transport of choice.
It means Jacqui's up at about 5am to drive from her home west-ish of Ipswich to catch the 6.31am train from Stowmarket. I join her on a (smooth) trip in - declining, with cowardice, to experience the (likely tougher) journey home.
"I started my new job on Monday 28th October and aimed to take the 07.09 train to Cambridge. The train was flagged as running late due to a technical fault (the earlier 06.31 service had been cancelled). It eventually arrived at circa 07.20, the service was reduced to only two carriages and, with the overflow from the earlier service, passengers boarding at Stowmarket had standing room only.
"Conditions were cramped; train guards were walking down the platform at each subsequent stop, motioning for passengers standing in the carriage to squeeze up further to make use of every available inch of space. At Newmarket, passengers could not board the train; there simply was not space.
"We eventually arrived in Cambridge at around 08.45, and I made it to the office, on my first day in my new role, at 9am, by the skin of my teeth. I hoped this was a one-off."
Jacqui says she tried to catch the 17.47 back to Stowmarket, but there were only two carriages. "I believe it is supposed to operate on three carriages, although I've never witnessed this phenomenon.
"There was a surge to access the train, which quickly became full to capacity. I was left on the platform with many other passengers… We were directed to take the 18.01 service to Ely and change onto the 18.31 service running from Peterborough to Ipswich. I returned home at around 19.45, wondering if I'd made a huge mistake in my change of job, and location."
From her second day, Jacqui realised "that with a little more effort" she could catch the 06.31 train.
"By Newmarket it is overcrowded, and often passengers at Dullingham are left standing on the platform. However, boarding at Stowmarket, I have always managed to get a seat."
Her employer is very understanding. Flexible working means she can be in the office by 8am and catch the 4.47pm home, "which is extremely busy, and often a short-formed train, so standing room only at least to Newmarket. But at least I can get home at a reasonable time".
Even so, "I don't commit to anything (socially) during the week".
Brings out worst in people
It's the "appalling" crowding that most concerns Jacqui. It's "akin to taking part in a rugby scrum (I've been shoved, squashed and trodden on, on multiple occasions) and cannot be considered safe", she claims.
The journey to work generally isn't too bad, but the return can be nightmarish.
"The first time I travelled, I stood back on the platform and thought 'I'll get on.' No. I didn't get on. So standing back, trying to be polite, isn't an option when you want to go home.
"That stresses me out. It's really tense. It brings out the worst in people. But I want to get home, so I find myself in the thick of it. A couple of nights ago I was on the train but my bag wasn't. I had hold of the strap, but it was several-people-behind, stuck in the crowd!"
And it's not as if it's cheap. "I pay £339 a month for my season ticket, and £118 a month for parking, for the pleasure of being treated like livestock."
Jacqui began logging delays, cancellations and congestion after complaining to Greater Anglia and receiving an apologetic reply from a customer relations officer.
It said "we do try hard to ensure that sufficient carriage numbers are available for each journey; however there are occasions when rolling stock faults occur, reducing the availability of carriages for use.
"In order to best utilise any such depletion of stock, we may have to introduce alterations to our train formations. Whilst this can lead to crowding, there is often no other alternative, and we would rather run a short-formed train than cancel a service entirely."
Jacqui takes issue with the phrase "there are occasions".
"I work in the supply chain. So I look at data and try to understand failure points and how we can improve the supply chain; how we avoid issues.
"You think this is 'occasional'? Look at the definition. It's once in a while. Once a month, maybe. This is every single day!"
Crowding might or might not be linked to the problems besetting rural services in Suffolk and Norfolk, such as Ipswich to Peterborough and Ipswich to Felixstowe. Signalling issues? New trains? Leaves? Who knows?
On her route, she suspects there just isn't sufficient rolling stock available to run services efficiently.
I'm not giving up the job
If she got the chance to address bigwigs from Network Rail and Greater Anglia, Jacqui would tell them that explanations don't give enough detail, or suggest when and how things might be remedied. "It's lip-service, is what it is."
Does she ever think of taking to the road? Well, Jacqui admits she's applied for a parking permit at work, though there is about a year's wait. Maybe more carriages might appear, and retain her as a season ticket holder.
Moving house is an option for her and her husband, but she would prefer not to. She likes the town where she lives, and her friends.
The ball seems to be in the railway's court.
"I'm not giving up the job, because it's brilliant; I absolutely love it. I'd rather do this - the train."
Postscript: A number of trains failed to run that night. An email from Jacqui at 8.07pm reported: "My 18:47 was cancelled, 19:47 just left 20:06. Subsequent trains have been cancelled this evening."
A Greater Anglia spokesperson said: "We're very sorry to hear of Ms Cobbold's experiences, which we appreciate will have been poor recently, partly due to signalling issues on our regional lines. We'd like to reassure her that she should notice a marked improvement in her commute as we continue to introduce more new, longer trains on the Ipswich-Cambridge route, so her journeys will become more comfortable and reliable.
"Unfortunately, the recent signalling problems slightly set back our roll-out plan for our new trains, but that programme has now resumed and, in the coming weeks, new three- or four-carriage trains will replace all of the existing two-carriage old trains on the route."