måndag 22 oktober 2007

Ethical Travel

I saw an article today in a publication called "Ethical Consumer", about the benefits of travelling by rail. But having done so extensively over the past couple of years, it is easy to understand why so many people do not. It can take a lot of determination and effort to use the train instead of driving or going by plane.

Long distance (international) travel by rail is troublesome these days, mostly due to the difficulty of buying tickets. Some railways have confusing and awkward web sites. Others will refuse to sell tickets for other than the most popular routes and destinations or will not accept payment by foreign credit or debit cards. Poor computer systems are another hazard. It can take up to a quarter of an hour to buy a ticket from their Rail Europe shop in London as staff struggle with their terminals; there was a two-hour queue there recently. Yet another is being told that trains are fully booked when they are not, due to badly designed reservation systems which do not allocate the same seat to different passengers each travelling on only part of the route. I have travelled in "fully booked" trains which were never more than 60% full. A further difficulty is the inflexibility of having to travel on a particular train, and passengers are told that a train is fully booked when this is not so. Altogether, things are too complicated; If you succeed in booking a return journey to Stockholm, you will end up with two dozen tickets!

Earlier this year my attempt to travel to Sweden by train failed entirely. I was unable to book a return journey on Eurostar, as my return was too far ahead to be on the computer system and was offered a single ticket at an extortionate amount. Then the UK office of Deutsche Bahn was unable to renew my Bahncard, so I gave up on the idea of the train. Instead, for the same money I travelled to and from Denmark on the luxury cruise ferry, with my own cabin with sea view, and dinners and breakfasts. That got me most of the way with no trouble, on one ticket!

Conditions on the actual journey are often not what they ought to be either. Some trains, like the Danish IC3 and German ICE designs, are reasonably spacious and pleasant, with seats well placed in relation to the windows. But seating layouts on many trains are cramped and poor, and because it is common practice to book everyone into a particular seat, people often end up being allocated a place which is not to their liking; from many "window seats", all that can actually be seen is a bit of curtain. This happens even on a scenic route like Oslo to Bergen, which is like going to an opera and finding one's view blocked by a pillar. Then a game of musical chairs takes place with people moving from one empty seat to another, as and when they are available.

Luggage storage is often a problem. On older trains there is usually a good space between seat backs, which means one can keep one's luggage close by, but the vogue for airline style seating on trains means that these spaces do not exist. Thus, on busy Swedish trains, luggage just collects in a heap on the floor, while on the Thalys between Cologne and Paris, luggage sometimes has to be stuffed into the doorway and unloaded onto the platform at stations just so that people can get off the train.

Double-deck trains are another bugbear for people with luggage, as it has to be dragged up flights of stairs, again, with nowhere to put it. In Finland (picture), I found that an attempt had been made to deal with the problem by providing lockers by the doorways, but they were only big enough for medium sized cases.

If people are going to return to using rail in any numbers, there is a need to analyse and cater for passengers' needs, starting with the time they are planning their journey.

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