Virgin Trains East Coast is blessed with some magnificent stations. Top of the list for me are Newcastle and York.
Both have grand trainsheds above long, curved platforms that draw the eye to approaching trains. They have a grace and style that evokes a golden age of travel. Stylish they may be but those curves present problems for passengers and train operators. They bring large gaps between platform edge and train making it hard to board or alight, whether or not you’re loaded with luggage. Those in wheelchairs need ramps and they take time to deploy and recover. All-in-all, trains work better with straight platforms.
Not that VTEC can do much about the curves. It can however, change the way it uses space within a station, just as the North Eastern Railway, LNER and BR did done over the years since York opened in 1877 and Newcastle in 1850.
Latest of the changes is VTEC’s plan to alter the booking office at York to remove counters and have roving staff to help passengers struggling with ticket machines or questions. This is similar to the changes London Underground made a few years ago. That move worked reasonably well. At quieter stations, it was easy to attract attention but at busier stations, such as King’s Cross St Pancras, it can be harder to summon help. LU also has the advantage of simpler fares and ticketing than the national network and many journeys take place with ‘touch-in, touch-out’ Oyster cards. This means that most passengers don’t need help.
York is different. There’s a greater mix of journeys. Machines remain great for simple ones. When they work, they’re convenient for collecting tickets bought online. However, more complex journeys are easier to plan with a desk in front of you.
No surprise then that VTEC’s York plans have attracted a petition arguing against the changes that netted 2,600 signatures by early August. Local paper, the York Press explained VTEC’s plan, quoting Customer Experience Director Claire Ansley: “Our customer zone will create more, not less, opportunities for face-to-face interaction with our people in an informal, warm and friendly environment. It will act as a one-stop shop for all enquiries, advice and ticket purchases. We recognise that, while people are increasingly buying tickets online and via significantly improved ticket machines, many people also wish to continue to buy tickets directly from our people at our stations and they’ll be able to continue to do exactly that within the customer zone.”
I hope so. I’d not welcome losing the ability to ask questions before buying tickets, particularly because our fares system is complex. All this can be done standing in front of a machine with a member of staff. What’s harder is taking notes as you might be doing if you’re still planning rather than buying.
Newcastle saw changes to its booking office a couple of years ago. The most recent refurbishment demolished the 1985 office that BR built in the centre of the concourse. In its place are shops. Today’s booking office takes more finding, it’s towards the western end of the station’s main buildings, past a couple of small supermarkets. I often think it’s been hidden from passengers.
Contrast this with its location in station plans from 1893. Then it was next to the main entrance, with direct access to the portico, where there’s a newsagent today. Newcastle’s portico is no longer the covered pick-up and drop-off point it was. It’s been converted to space for shops while passengers must wait outside for taxis.
York thankfully retains its portico in its original role. It’s light and airy and a decent place to wait. Newcastle’s was dark and dirty. It needed revamping but should have kept its role rather than becoming home to yet more shops (of which several are empty). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for refreshment rooms and newsagents at stations. Florists are useful too as is a small supermarket. I just think the railway – not just VTEC – has its priorities wrong. It exists to sell travel yet puts other brands first. It shouldn’t appear to be running shopping centres with a few platforms attached.
It’s true that the internet has made ticket buying easier. It lets you split tickets to save money and it can show you the different fares different companies charge between the same two stations. Here, York and Newcastle are great examples because three operators run between them.
For me, the loco2.com website has been a revelation and a revolution. It sells tickets and provides timetable information for continental rail travel. I’ve become quite a fan. Despite this, it’s a real shame that St Pancras International has no international booking office. East Midlands Trains provided such a desk but it’s now gone and Eurostar’s booking office only sells Eurostar tickets. I can’t believe that the queue I joined a few days ago consisted only of people wanting to travel to Paris or Brussels.
Or perhaps I’m wrong and everything can be done on the internet?
This article first appeared in RAIL 833 on August 16 2017.