What I learned about our local rail network on a day out watching the England Women’s International at the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough.
Like many, I was inspired by the Lionesses world cup run earlier this year. It wasn’t just the football that impressed, but the way the team conducted themselves on the pitch. No gobbiness, no aggressive challenging of decisions. They just got on with it and let the football do the talking. When I found out they were playing Brazil in a friendly at the Riverside I snapped up three tickets for myself and two friends. We decided to make a day of it and have a couple of pints in Middlesbrough after the game in some of the great little bars off Linthorpe Road.
Thankfully, the towns where we lived are both served by train lines that connect to Middlesbrough. Two of us would be travelling from Hartlepool and one from Bishop Auckland. As match day loomed, a nagging worry in the back of mind began to grow louder. The last time I travelled by train to a football match, the return journey from Middlesbrough back to Hartlepool had been an unpleasant experience; far too many people shoe-horned into a single carriage. I spent the entire journey standing in the footwell where everyone alights and gets on, getting clipped by the automatic doors at each stop. Personal space was obliterated. Beery breathed blokes were jutted up next to old ladies, who were trying not to trip over pushchairs. Everyone was good humoured about it. You get the picture I’m sure. Each time, I had to get off to let other passengers alight, and then get back on again before we set off. That was about two years ago. Surely, the train company will have learned from such a shambles and will be well-prepared for the volume of passengers travelling to an international football match, I mused to myself…
5th October 2019, 10:10 am. Match day at the train station; there was an excited atmosphere on the platform. The Northern service taking us to Middlesbrough was due at 10:27am. People travelling to work or to go shopping mingled with many supporters travelling to the match at Middlesbrough. It was a family crowd, with many girls, women and children probably going to their first ever big football match. There were many England shirts and flags. It was a great sight to see generation of families sharing a passion and going to support our national team. The platform was quite busy.
The first sign that things weren’t going to plan was when the arrival time of the 10:27 slipped once, twice, three times. Then, an unintelligible message was announced over the tinny PA system. Nobody heard it over the chatter of the crowd on the platform (I certainly didn’t as a hearing impaired passenger with a Disabled Persons Railcard; more on that later). A few seconds later the commanding shout of a station employee got everyone’s attention. In the politest possible way you can when shouting, he basically said the late train only had two carriages, was full with not much left in the way of standing room, so if your journey isn’t necessary, off you hop to the station office for a refund and/or make alternative travel arrangements.
I was staggered. As the news sank in, people started drifting off. One bloke shouted that he was going to take the car to the match and could fit four people in. His magnanimous gesture was the polar opposite of the apology free dismissive message from Northern.
My friend and I decided to take our chances with the train. As it arrived, something like 25 minutes late, we realised it was a tall order. The two carriages were rammed. A few people squeezed on, but it looked deeply uncomfortable. The station employee shouted a warning that the train was leaving; the doors closed and off it went, leaving us and many more people on the platform. We had a quick chat with the employee. I felt sorry for him. Nobody should have to work with such a degree of stress, shouting to disgruntled crowds on platforms, shouting at people to give passengers room to get off, shouting at people not to get on because the train was overcrowded, trying to provide an answer to a passenger asking him how they are going to get to work when the taxi fare would swallow up a good proportion of money earned on the shift.
Anyway, Geoff and I decided that the next train, whenever it was likely to arrive, was probably going to be rammed too, so we made our way to the front of the station and hailed a taxi. Less than half an hour later and £20 lighter we were reflecting on the rail shambles over a pint in Middlesbrough. We concluded that HS2 should be binned and the money spent on improving regional rail networks.
What followed was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, supporting the Lionesses amongst a record crowd of over 29 thousand. The result was disappointing, but their commitment on the pitch and respect for the support was not. They stayed on the pitch after the game, applauding the support, warming down and signing autographs. You could see the joy and excitement on the faces of so many girls and young women. What a great thing to see. The FA also deserve credit for making the ticket prices affordable for all; £10 for adults and and amazing £1 for concessions. The event represented the best of us, and it made up for the appalling service provided by Northern. Unfortunately though, it wasn’t the end of our travel woes.
After an enjoyable afternoon chewing the fat and listening to a bit of live music, we headed back to the train station with a degree of trepidation tempered by a good day out. Our friend Chris managed to get onto his train to Bishop Auckland. It was another rammed train. He was stood in the doorway with nowhere else to sit or stand. After his train pulled away I looked for our train service back to Hartlepool. The 18:35 to Prudhoe had no arrival time next to it; just the word ‘Cancelled’. I sighed and decided to console myself with a bar of chocolate from the station shop. I tried the glass door to the shop, but it was locked. I looked at the opening times on the door. It read ‘06.30 – 18.30’. I looked at the time on my phone. It said 18.29. It should have been still open. I could see a lady counting up money from the till. I banged on the door to get her attention. She turned around to look at me and said, “We are shut!” I shouted back, “It isn’t 6.30 yet!”. She just ignored me.
I went back to the platform to check when the next train would be after the cancelled 18:35 train. It was the 19:35 to the Metro Centre, and it was already running late. We had lost all confidence in Northern and its lame duck service to get us home, and we had had enough of this dispiriting experience, so once again we found ourselves leaving a train station and hailing a taxi.
We were taken home by an middle eastern man with a PhD, supplementing his income by taxi driving. He had a nascent business which involved food safety standards. That day had been his daughter’s 14th birthday. We had an engaging and enjoyable conversation with him, Britain’s entrepreneurial spirit alive in an Iranian migrant. We arrived back at home another £30 lighter.
So let me do some simple arithmetic. With my Disabled Persons Railcard discount, my off-peak day return between Hartlepool and Middlesbrough was a very reasonable £2.80. However, the ticket remained unused, due to a dysfunctional train company. The actual cost of travel was £20 outward and £30 inward, bringing the total to £50, or 17.85 times more expensive than anticipated.
It’s clear that Northern isn’t in great shape. The Times reported earlier this year (Northern rail operator faces end of the line) that it is heading for re-nationalisation, although that is not certain.
I have found no compensation offer on the company’s website that I am happy with, so I have written to the CEO of Northern (legal name Arriva Rail North Limited) asking for my £50 back. Here is my letter to David Brown.
Dear Mr Brown,
Re: Northern train service on Saturday 5th October 2019
I have decided to forego your company’s regular channels of complaint and compensation claim and email you directly with my concerns around my experience of Northern on Saturday 5th October.
Because I decided not to travel with you due to the appalling service provided on that day, I don’t really want to be charged a £10 administration fee to claim back a ticket that cost me a very reasonable £2.80, including a discount with my Disabled Persons Railcard. That would put me a further £7.20 out of pocket, along with the £50 I ended up paying in taxi fares from Hartlepool to Middlesbrough and back again to attend the England Women’s team’s football match against Brazil at the Riverside.
It was clear leading up to this international match that it was going to be a well-attended event, with many more people than usual travelling by train to attend.From my experience yesterday, it seemed obvious that Northern failed to plan at all for this challenge to the local rail network. Your company failed spectacularly. I don’t want to repeat myself too much, so do have a read of my blog post, all about my experience with Northern.
I would like to praise the staff at Hartlepool station for doing an admirable job in difficult circumstances. I also wish you well in your endeavour to improve Northern’s performance. It seems there is quite some way to go.
As for the £50 I am short, if you fancy opening your wallet I would be happy to accept the full amount from you. I accept cheques, bank transfers and Paypal.
I can make copies of tickets and receipts should you require them.