A Croydon commuter’s tale


By - Wednesday 9th November, 2016

Paul Cowling on the bottomless despair of his seven-and-a-half mile journey to work


If I am running late, there’s a good chance that I’ll still get to Norbury station before the 08:57 does.

I speed march up the station approach, past the waft of cigarette smoke that shouldn’t be there, and the empty beer and caffeine kick cans that don’t want to use the rubbish bins.

On platform 2, the departure board tells me the 08:57 to London Victoria has “been delayed”.

‘Delayed’ is often code for cancellation, though if I’m lucky, ‘delayed’ means being late by an average of six minutes.

The 08:57 is never on time.

Southern Rail has even had a negative impact on house prices along the Brighton main line

The 07:29 from Brighton to London Victoria, the service that was recently revealed as the worst that Southern Rail has to offer (because it was late for 240 consecutive journeys), has a rival. And the 08:57 can’t be the only one in their failing repertoire.

Southern’s inability to deliver, and the current stand-off with the RMT union over the planned change in role of conductors, has even had a negative effect on house prices along the Brighton mainline area.

Southern even massaged its timetable last year, so problem trains were set to leave from stations a minute or so later, presumably so that passengers wouldn’t notice the delays as much.

For Norbury, that meant altering the 08:56 to 08:57, but the end result is just the same.

‘Signal failure’ is a common reason, along with their ‘wrong kind of’ theme

The clipped-vowel tannoy voice will inform me that the 08:57 to London Victoria has either been ’delayed by’, say, five minutes, or that it ‘has been cancelled due to…’ a variety of reasons.

As we know, Southern (like all rail operators) has a list of reasons for cancellations, including ‘signal failure’ (a common reason) and their ‘wrong kind of’ theme. This could be because of unhelpful leaves or snow on the line. I’m surprised that Brexit hasn’t been rolled out as an excuse.

Sometimes a reason (excuse) why a train has been cancelled is so illogical that it might as well be due to ‘an unseasonal infestation of worker ants carrying dolls’ house furniture on the line between Crawley and East Croydon’.

Asking to move down politely is a woman’s job. Men just shout their way on

Back on Platform 2, it turns out that the 08:57 train has disappeared from the departure boards, because it has been cancelled by stealth. And we await the 09:07. Anyone needing the toilet is out of luck now, as the 09:07 will not only be late, and short-formed to five carriages instead of the required ten, but also toilet-free.

Lateness of a previous train (as we all know) has that knock on effect of delay aplenty, so if you are ‘hanging on’, you make sure you do!

Short-formed carriages at peak time are what commuters dream of, especially when they want to get home. ‘Can you move down please?’, someone asks politely.

Asking politely is often the job of a woman. Men shout their way on.

Usually people do move down the aisles, but occasionally there is a form of carriage rage, as people shoulder-charge on, and those by the door stand their ground. When that happens, I just wait for the next train – itself held up because this train is late.

It’s just as well that I have a sympathetic employer.

I left the train at Mitcham Eastfields, then got lost. It was better than waiting

Being thirty minutes late for work is not unusual for me. I have tried leaving earlier, but it’s even busier, and sometimes I get into work even later.

On my way home, I used to take the Northern Line from Camden (where I work) to Balham, but gave that up when people on arriving trains stood by carriage doors, despite gaps in the aisles. Staff would feebly tell passengers to move down, but this request was usually ignored. Trains departed, leaving me and everyone else on the platform waiting for the next (usually delayed) train. I have even got off at Mitcham Eastfields and got lost walking to Norbury, because it was better than waiting.

Nowadays, I get on at Victoria to ensure that I get a seat.

And the fun doesn’t stop there. Getting off at Norbury at peak time is a trial by ticket barrier and poor long-term planning. When Norbury station was revamped in 2009, nobody realised that entry and exit passenger numbers would catapult by 500,000 per year in just four years. The end result is a bottleneck at the ticket barriers as transient workers, lured by cheap (multi-occupancy) housing jostle with passengers using Norbury because it’s in Zone 3.

So will people’s commute to and from work get better? Will stripping Southern of its franchise make any difference? Wouldn’t the only difference be the colour scheme and a name change on the side of the trains?

Although Southern Rail’s target performance goes further south by the day, I, and hundreds of rail commuters like me, will suffer the delays of the 08:57 just to go seven and a half miles north.

Paul Cowling

Paul Cowling

Paul Cowling has lived in Norbury since 2006 and works in North London as a football journalist. He's involved with Norbury Village Residents' Association and the LoveNorbury campaign.

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  • http://www.fxpansion.com angus_fx

    For 7.5 miles, I’d seriously recommend looking in to electric-assist bikes. E-assist means you don’t need to worry about the weight penalty of chunky wheels (stability) full mudguards (to keep your clothes dry) or jumbo panniers (if getting changed when you get to work is an option), and you never have to break a sweat if you don’t want to. There are some reasonably good models just under £1000 now – means you can get them on the Cycle To Work scheme. You’ll be looking at just under an hour door to door, and there are several mainly back-street routes which are safe enough for an adult.

    Basically: aim for Elephant & Castle, get on the Cycle Bypass from there (avoiding the roundabout itself), head north on the Cycle Superhighway over Blackfriars Bridge; when you run out of Cycle Superhighway, work your way north to Royal College Street, being extra careful around Kings Cross. @ me on Twitter

    • http://www.fxpansion.com angus_fx

      So just for laughs, I looked this one up. Any halfway quiet cycle route, Norbury to Camden, is more like 12 miles than 7-and-a-half.

      That’s perfectly tolerable on an e-bike, but only for those who like spending a fair portion of their time outdoors – 60-70 minutes in each direction. That’s about what I do of late (SE25/SE19 borders to Haggerston most days) but 12 miles both ways every day is perhaps jumping in at the deep end a bit for most.

      So on that basis, two other options – both via the reliable, if sometimes crowded, Northern Line at Balham. This is three miles, 15 minutes / 20 max, 95% of it on quiet-*ish* roads and a gorgeous stretch across Tooting Common.

      1) Get a Brompton, or one of the cheaper alternatives (Tern etc.) and take it on the tube. Folding bikes are allowed on the tube 24/7, but if you travel in the high peak crush-hour you won’t be Mr. Popular.

      2) Get a cheap Halfords bike and a decent lock, lock it up by Balham station.

      Don’t try to combine the two and lock a folder up outside Balham. The scrotes will have it on day one, sadly.

    • Anne Giles

      I don’t know anyone who would have £1,000 to spend though.

      • http://www.fxpansion.com angus_fx

        The Cycle To Work scheme allows you to pay in instalments via salary sacrifice – same principle as the annual rail season ticket schemes many firms have. Saves both worker and employer a bit of tax as well – 20% ish, if I remember right.

        (There are *much* cheaper models available, £300 and less on fleabay, but £1000 is about right for a reliable machine intended for doing ten or more miles every day & to last a few years. Given that the battery is right under the seat, dodgy unbranded imports are not a wise investment).

  • BTejon

    “congestion” is the usual excuse. Is that too many trains (bizarre as they are 20% cancelled at the moment), or the driver suffering? who knows.