Splitting fares

June 9, 2006

I have an apology to make. Quite probably the person to which I owe it will never read this, but somebody may be able to pass it on

On Tuesday (6th June 2006) I caught the 19:17 train from London Victoria, and shortly after settling into my seat, a young woman approached and asked if she was in the correct portion of the train for Worthing. I confidently assured her she was, and therein lay my mistake.

For readers who do not have the joy of regularly using certain parts of the British railway network I should explain. The London-Brighton line runs pretty much at capacity during peak hours, to the extent that no more trains can be run without compromising safety margins. Therefore, in order to serve all the destinations, we indulge in train-splitting. This is excellent fun.

A train sets off from London twelve coaches long, say. It runs that size as far as Haywards Heath and then the rear four coaches are detached, so there are now two trains: an eight coach train to head down coastway west, and a four coach train for coastway east. When the coastway west train reaches Worthing it splits again: four coaches to Southampton, and four coaches to Littlehampton.

The same happens in reverse going the other way, but that's not so much fun as all the trains end up, in one piece, in the same place.

What this means then, is that when boarding the train at London, passengers must know which specific coaches to join for their chosen destination. This is not so bad from the outside because you can walk along the platform counting them, but once aboard, a) you probably don't know where you are anyway, and b) there's nothing to tell you which bit of the train you're in. Added to that, the onboard information system isn't smart enough to know about the split so it insists that the whole train is going to Southampton. Once the split takes place the two trains are free to show their own destinations so the information suddenly changes, causing some consternation in passengers not expecting it.

But the fun doesn't end there, oh no. Obviously you can't split trains arbitrarily; there has to be a drivers cab at each end of the resulting unit. But not all train units are four-coaches long; some are only three. So when the automated announcements say "the front eight coaches for Southampton", they really mean "the front two units", which might copmprise only "the front seven coaches" or even "the front six coaches". Are you still with me? This all grist to the chaos mill when the trains split. People who have have rigorously followed instructions can still find themselves in the wrong bit of the train.

What's more, as passenger numbers have grown, train lengths have increased in excess of platform sizes at many stations. Assuming you have maneouvered yourself into the eight (or seven, or six) coaches of the west coastway service when it split at Haywards Heath, you may still find yourself unable to alight at Lancing, say, because Lancing only has a platform long enough to accommodate four coaches. Consequently the rear of the train has to park across the level crossing while passengers get on and off (and in some cases, sprint though the train to a door which opens onto the platform), much to the frustration of car drivers and pedestrians waiting there.

All of which goes to explain why I have to apologise to the young lady last night, who may have inadvertantly awoken in Eastbourne having been assured by at least one passenger that she would be going to Worthing. If it mitigates the pain, I had to make a hasty change from one portion to the other myself. I don't suppose it does.

It's all part of what makes Britain great!


One Response to “Splitting fares”

  1. […] while back, when blogging was a new and exciting activity for me I wrote of the problems of splitting trains and how passengers were to know which part of a train they were in. Well, thanks to Bish, you need […]

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