Andrew Vine: Welcome aboard the 16.18 train - and a journey of disappointment

The entrance to Sheffield Station does not match the experience passengersa endure on trains to and from Leeds.
The entrance to Sheffield Station does not match the experience passengersa endure on trains to and from Leeds.
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THE 16.18 train from Sheffield to Leeds probably isn’t any more of an ordeal than any other busy service in Yorkshire. But it’s an ordeal just the same.

Every time I step on to platform 1B to catch it, there’s a crowd waiting. Come rain or shine, on any weekday, there are easily enough people to fill four carriages. It’s completely predictable.

And equally predictably, a two-carriage train always trundles into the station and the regulars roll their eyes.

As an exercise in British restraint and good manners, the behaviour of us all could hardly be bettered. We don’t jostle or push, let older passengers and parents with children go first to bag seats, and a lot of us end up standing.

So last week as usual, I didn’t get a seat. I haven’t had a seat all the way from Sheffield to Leeds any time I’ve caught the 16.18 in the past year.

As we set off from Sheffield, the aisle was already crowded from front to back with standing passengers. A few minutes later, the train arrived at Meadowhall, where the platform was busy with shoppers laden with their bags.

Somehow they all got on. Now I know how a tinned sardine feels.

There’s something else about the 16.18. As it pulls out of Meadowhall, everybody standing always looks at their watches. We’re all checking how long it will be before we reach the next stop, Barnsley, where with luck, quite a few people will get off and not many are waiting to get on.

We were out of luck. Not many people got off, and quite a few got on. Onwards to Wakefield Kirkgate, where it thinned out a bit, but still not enough for everybody to have a seat.

Not long afterwards, there were audible sighs of relief as we arrived at Leeds, where on one of the hottest afternoons of the year, we all got off as damp as face flannels after a wash.

Conversations spring up between strangers when you’re shoulder-to-shoulder for a journey lasting about an hour, and the woman next to me wondered aloud why a longer train was never put on the 16.18, because it was always the same.

Why indeed? It seems blindingly obvious. If it’s always busy, why not put on four carriages, or even six?

This is, after all, a service between Yorkshire’s two biggest cities, taking in the county’s largest shopping centre at a time of day when early starters are finishing work and Meadowhall’s customers are heading home. It cannot come as a surprise that a lot of passengers will want to get on.

But the questions all of us
with elbows tucked into our bodies in order to take up as
little space as possible asked ourselves run through the minds and conversations of rail commuters all over Yorkshire, every day.

Tens of thousands of people on services even more crowded than the 16.18 have uncomfortable, sweaty journeys to put up with, arriving at work crumpled and out-of-sorts even before they start.

Use public transport, we’re urged. Keep cars off the roads, do your bit to ease congestion and help the environment by reducing pollution.

Which is all well and good if the trains were up to it. But they are not, and unlikely to be for several years yet.

New franchises for Yorkshire’s commuter routes that began in the spring promised a £1.2bn boost to rail services with 500 brand-new carriages, room for 40,000 more passengers and thousands more services.

It didn’t feel that way on the 16.18. None of us packed into the aisle was clamouring for new carriages. A couple more of the old ones would have done us quite nicely, thank you.

Improvements will take time, and perhaps in two or three
years our commutes will be a pleasure.

Suggest that to anybody who routinely stands, and they will snort with derision, believing it when they see it.

Before then, though, long-suffering rail passengers are likely to have insult piled upon injury by being required to pay more for the privilege of standing.

The country’s biggest rail ticket website, Trainline, is to constantly update prices to reflect how busy services are. This is ostensibly to encourage people on to quieter trains, but is likely to mean higher fares on peak services. That’s in addition to the annual across-the-board fare increase.

This is not a strategy for fostering goodwill on the 16.18, or any other service where we are forced into reluctant intimacy with strangers because of overcrowding.

In fact, the conversations that went back and forth between those of us standing came up with much better ideas.

Freeze fare increases until there is room for everybody to have a seat. And find a few more carriages, whether new or old, so that all of us on platform 1B look forward to the journey instead of bracing ourselves for an ordeal.