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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 October, 2003, 07:39 GMT 08:39 UK
Taking the train - and the strain
Scotland's busiest rail commuter link is the focus of the third part of our public transport test. We asked for volunteers to ditch their cars and use the Scottish Executive's "Choose Another Way" website to plan an alternative way of getting to and from work for a week.

By Susan Fraser

I am a software developer with a financial services company in the west end of Edinburgh work and live in the west end of Glasgow. I've been commuting by car for the last three years and before that I took the train. Luckily, my office works on flexi-time so I can start any time before 1000 which means I usually travel outside the rush-hour. By car, the trip takes about an hour each way and costs about 7 in petrol. This week, I'm going back to the train to test the "flagship" commuter service between the two cities.

Susan Fraser
I'm turning back the clock - but what will I find?

Day One To prepare for the week, I looked up the Traveline website to check out my options. Once I managed to get the website to recognise details of where I live and when I want to travel, I see a list of five trains I could take to work. There is a train to Edinburgh every 15 minutes during the day and half hourly during the evening. There is no information on fares.

0700 My alarm goes off an hour earlier than usual
0810 Leave home and head for the underground a few minutes walk away (on a normal day I throw everything in the back of the car and leave at about 0845). I get a multi-journey ticket for 7.50 for 10 journeys. Only a short wait until the tube arrives. I have to stand, but apart from a bit of jostling from other passengers it's fine
0825 At Queen Street railway station. Ask about cheapest way to travel to Edinburgh for a week and am quoted 57 for a weekly season ticket but that a photograph is needed. Not knowing this, I have no photo and no time to go to the booth and get one. Day return costs 14.40. I ask about multi-journey tickets but am told they won't do, they are 70 for 10 journeys and I am sold a day return. It is only later that I do the arithmetic for myself and work out that the multi-journey ticket would have been cheaper after all.
0835 Missed the 0830 train while in the ticket office. A tannoy announcement says something about my train, I think, but I can't make out what is said because of the noise in the station
0850 The 0845 train platform is announced and the train leaves a few minutes late. I have a comfortable double seat to myself. I am trying to sleep but an alarm goes off somewhere and rings for the next 20 minutes. Once it goes off, the guard comes round to check my ticket so my chance for a decent nap is gone. Arrive on time at Haymarket

Queen Street station
The tannoy at Queen Street was impossible to make out

0935 Having gone through another ticket check and after a brief walk, I arrive at work half an hour later than if I had driven
1850 Leave work and head for Haymarket. I know that although the trains are now half hourly, one is due at 1904
1904 Train arrives dead on time and although it is quite busy, I get a seat and settle down. However, this carriage has a crying baby, a man with a very loud personal stereo and someone making noisy business phone calls. I move to the other carriage and sleep for the rest of the trip
2000 Arrive in a very wet Glasgow. Head to underground station where even at this time of night the platform is crowded and there is a long wait for the train. When it does arrive, there is a bit of jostling but everyone gets a seat. The man sitting opposite me is behaving very oddly and staring at other people on the train. When it reaches my stop I hurry home quickly
2025 Home at last, damp and tired. Today's travelling has taken more than an hour longer and cost more than 9 more than my usual Monday.

Day Two I need to leave work early today so I am heading off a bit earlier, at 0745. However, when I get to the underground, it tells me that the Outer Circle (the one going to the city centre) is currently off. Head out to the nearest bus stop but the information there has no details of buses going down Great Western Road that go near Queen Street station. Start walking towards the city centre and hail a taxi that stops to tell me he can't turn on the busy street - and drives away. I don't see another free taxi all the way to the station
Tube off sign
Bad news greeted me at the underground

0845 Reach the station on foot and buy a day ticket and despite being caught in the broken doors of the ticket office, I catch the 0845 train. Same as yesterday though, the train is delayed only by about 10 minutes. There are plenty seats. Buy a cup of tea from the trolley and am astonished that a small plastic cup and a tea bag cost 1.45
0950 Finally reach work after travelling for nearly two hours
1635 Leave work in a rush and head to station. Get through the ticket check and onto platform just in time to catch the 1649 train. It only has four carriages which don't seem much for rush-hour and as expected the train is crowded. I'd been looking forward to a nap but as it turns out I have to stand for most of the journey as does an elderly couple. No-one, even those in the priority seats, offers to give up their place for them. Standing space is also limited, especially as there is a man with a small baby in a pram who has nowhere else to go but stand at the doors
1800 Home again. It's been a long day. I've spent nearly three-and-a-half hours travelling, one-and-a-half more than usual and I've lost more than an hour of flexi-time at work.

Day Three

0800 I leave the house and miraculously arrive at the underground station just as a train is pulling in. Arrive at Queen Street just in time to run and catch the 0815 train. I manage to get one of the last seats (not everyone is so lucky) and pay for my ticket en route. By the time we reach Haymarket the train is overcrowded again but it is on time
0915 I arrive at work. This journey has actually taken about the same time as it would have done by car at this time of day
Train toilet
The train toilet wasn't a pleasant place

1850 Having worked late to catch up my flexi-time that I lost yesterday, I head off to Haymarket station. As I'm a little early I have time to notice the nice new coffee shop and some of the environmental improvements made to the station since I last used it regularly. It's still pretty cold and dirty but better than it was
1904 Train arrives on time and is busy but not too crowded. I am sitting next to the toilets so decide to have a look. They are dirty and smell terrible. The hand dryer is broken and there is no water in the sink anyway. Only for use in an emergency I think. The three men at the next table are working their way swiftly through a carry-out of beer and getting louder as the trip goes by. Arrive in Glasgow on time
2000 I decide that because I'm in town, I'll walk to see a friend who lives nearby and tell them about my experiences on public transport.

Day Four Perhaps encouraged by yesterday's successes, I try setting out half an hour later at 0830. However, when I get to the underground station, the platform is crowded and an announcement is made that a train is out of action so there are delays.

0840 When the next train finally arrives it is so crowded that not even the most desperate travellers can squeeze on. I manage to find a sliver of space by the doors of the next train. As I duck my head to let the doors close, I see other people still on the platform who have been there even longer than me
Crammed tube
The tube was crammed, but I managed to squeeze in

0901 Reach Queen Street just in time to see the 0900 train leave without me. However, the wait for the next train lets me buy my ticket, which is only 7.90 because I am now late enough to get a cheap day return (although I have to return before 1630 or after 1830) if I don't want an extra charge. It also gives me a chance to try out one of the many shops and snack bars. My toasted sandwich and Earl Grey tea are served up swiftly although I get very little change from 5
0915 The train is quiet. I enjoy my hot breakfast and have a nap until we get to Haymarket
1015 Arrive at work a quarter of an hour after the flexi-time deadline and have to explain to my boss about crowded underground trains
1850 With my cheap day return the first train I catch home is the 1904. I arrive at the station on time but the train is delayed, in the event by less than 10 minutes but as it is the first off-peak train of the evening, it is crowded. The problem is made worse by people taking up seats with their jackets and bags and deliberately sitting in the aisle seats to deter anyone from sitting beside them. Despite this I manage to get a seat and pass the trip chatting to the person sitting next to me. Train arrives in Glasgow and I head for the underground
2030 Home after another long day

Day Five As I have a work night out tonight, I have an extra big bag with my change of clothes. It also means I want to get in early today.

0740 The earlier time means the underground is quiet but it does take a while to arrive. I still get to Queen Street at just on 0800. Try to run to catch the train but it is 0801 and it has already gone from the information screens. It is only when I see the train leaving a couple of minutes later that I realise I could have caught it if the platform information had still been up. However, to pass the time I buy a bacon roll and a tea. I use a different food stall this time and am only charged 3
0815 After a wait on the platform, with no seats available making eating breakfast rather difficult, the train turns up on time. Plenty seats and the trip is quite pleasant

0915 Arrive at work. I have still taken more than an hour-and-a-half to arrive against less than an hour in the car on a normal Friday

Going home

After work I get a lift with a friend and get ready to go out at his house. He kindly gives me a lift to the restaurant as well. After a good night out I have to leave the pub early to make sure I get the last train home at 2334.

It's a 20-minute walk to the station and not being familiar with this bit of town I have no idea what buses there might be at this time of night.
It's imperative that I catch this train or I will be stuck in Edinburgh. I'm lucky enough to hail a taxi to the station - 3.50. Now I'm early and I have a 15-minute wait on the platform.

Crowded ScotRail train
Sometimes there was standing room only on the train
At this time of night it's getting pretty cold but the coffee shop and waiting room are closed. The only indoor waiting area is a passageway leading to the toilets. However, there is no seating and the smell of stale urine in there is so strong that I choose to stand in the cold instead.

Train arrives on time and is busy. The carriage is noisy with drunken people starting singalongs and continuing to drink on the train. The train visits every station on the way home and arrives in Glasgow at 0040, more than 10 minutes later than advertised. I checked the Traveline website the night before and it suggested that I should now walk to Renfrew Street and catch a bus to the west end.

However, with the train arriving late I won't catch the last bus. Also, it is very late at night and I am on my own. I join the taxi queue at Queen Street and after a 15-minute wait and a 4 taxi ride, I get home a little after 0100. It has taken nearly two hours to get home, when the car would have taken less than an hour at this time.

Verdict "Choose Another Way" is about asking yourself if the car is the best way for you to make every journey. It's about taking a moment to think before you get behind the wheel and to activate a rational decision-making process about your travel. There are three reasons why I won't be abandoning my car just yet.

Car: 7.50x5 = 37.50
Train: full day rate 14.40x4 = 57.60
Train: cheap day rate 7.90x1 = 7.90
Tube: 10 journey pass 7.50x1 = 7.50
Total = 73
I did some figures and even if all the costs of the car, insurance, maintenance, depreciation etc are included and I took an annual season ticket, it still works out cheaper across the year to drive.

The pricing structure means that depending on season tickets, timings, and multi journeys there are six different rates I could be paying and it is up to the customer to do the calculations to assess which is best. The best deal for you could vary from week to week depending on if you had holidays, late starts, or got a lift one day.

The second reason is time. In my normal week I spent 10-12 hours commuting in the car depending on road works, accidents and time of day. However, even on a bad week I would not spend the 15 hours which I have this week. There was only one day where I had no delays and even that was still longer than my usual schedule.

Train 'not restful' experience

Finally, despite everything that the Choose Another Way website claims, travelling by train is not a restful and pleasant experience. In my car I always get a warm comfy seat, I get my choice of CD, radio or silence and I have room for luggage. On the train, I was often standing, or crammed into close packed seats. I had cold waits in the stations and was subjected to the anti-social behaviour of some other travellers. The advertised food services were overpriced, the trains and toilets were dirty and smelly.

None of this encourages me to want to use the train as my preferred method of travel.

I don't think lots of single people in cars are a good thing and I was prepared to make a level of sacrifice to do the right thing and use public transport. I also recognise that there have been improvements since I last travelled on the train and for an occasional trip the train is certainly a viable option.

But for everyday commuting it will take very significant improvements, especially in the cost of travelling, before I will be swapping to public transport.

I have taken a week to think about my rational decision and I am afraid I will be staying with my car.

Rain, sawdust and buses don't mix
23 Oct 03  |  Scotland
Bus travel fails to impress
21 Oct 03  |  Scotland

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