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Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2007, 17:58 GMT
How much must we pay to sit down?
By Jon Kelly
BBC News

Commuters at Finsbury Park
Dr Mitchell's comments were not well-received by commuters
Commuters travelling at peak time on the railways cannot be guaranteed a seat for their journey, says the government - even if they spend 5,000 on a season ticket.

So do travellers have a right to put their feet up?

It was a comment never likely to go down well on the platforms at Waterloo, Euston and Birmingham New Street.

Dr Mike Mitchell, the Department of Transport's head of railways, told a House of Commons committee that it was unreasonable for people making half-hour journeys by train in rush hour to expect to sit down.

'Not realistic'

Asked by MP Richard Bacon if that applied to people who had paid 5,000 for a season ticket, Dr Mitchell replied: "It has to be said that there are alternatives... if one travels off-peak."

His comments were defended by rail minister Tom Harris, who said it was simply "not realistic" to for every passenger to get a seat at a time of population growth and rising demand. "You cannot pour a pint of water into a half pint," he said.

Colin Shearn
Colin Shearn never gets a seat during his 25-minute commute

The pressures on the rail network are well known. But the genuine frustration with which regular travellers greeted his remarks reveal how unhappy many are with their transport options.

Colin Shearn, 45, a business consultant at the Department of Health, commutes every morning from Reading to Paddington.

He pays 370 a month for a standard season ticket, and says that travelling off-peak simply is not an option for him.

"I have to be in the office first thing in the morning. There is no flexibility. If I'm not there on time I can't do my job," he says.

There is never any chance of a seat on his 25-minute standard fare journey, rarely even in first class.

He says: "After the Paddington rail disaster, we know overcrowding is a serious problem.

"Frankly, I do think that 5,000 should guarantee you a seat. It's a considerable amount for anyone."

Jay Dunford
I get claustrophobic so I don't enjoy taking the train
Jay Dunford

Just 41% of passengers believe they get good value for money from their train journeys amid rising ticket prices and overcrowding, particularly in the congested south east.

Gerry Doherty, general secretary of the TSSA union, said Dr Mitchell was "arrogant and out of touch".

But passengers do recognise that any notion that they might expect a seat during peak times would be a bad joke.

Computer consultant Jay Dunford, 44, from Bath, Somerset, commutes once a week from Chippenham to Paddington.

She pays 109 for a return journey and has developed her own routine for coping with the experience.

She says: "I get claustrophobic so I don't enjoy taking the train.

'Dose of reality'

"Passengers are packed in. If someone wants to move or go to the toilet it causes chaos.

"I try and stand over the luggage hold go so I can spread my newspaper out. It makes the trip slightly more bearable but it's hardly civilised.

"I want to know what sort of money they are asking so we can guarantee a seat. I'd gladly pay it."

Derek Monnery
Derek Monnery believes ministers are out of touch

Others have found ways of bagging themselves somewhere to sit. Derek Monnery, 50, pays 4,560 a year for his season ticket from Manningtree, Essex, to Liverpool Street in London.

He takes the slower 6.48 train rather than a service that is 15 minutes faster because it guarantees him a seat.

He says: "I pay 380 a month and I just can't bear the idea of standing all the way. It's no way to start your day.

"As for the minister's comments - I suggest he tries travelling standard class for a change. He needs a dose of reality."

But as long as commuting remains a miserable experience for many, it appears ministers and civil servants will never find the words to keep passengers happy.

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