Commuting to work is very unpleasant at the moment.
This morning I arrived at the station to meet another day of make-it-up-as-you-go-along timetables from Thameslink, since they introduced a new timetable on May 20th. There have been cancellations every day while they adjust to the new timetable and they don’t have enough drivers in the right places. (There has been a driver shortage since 2015.)
I got on and found a seat. There was a guy swaying in the passage next the doors, and occasionally blurting out something. At the next stop the lady next to me got off. And then chap sat down. It’s apparent he’s been sleeping rough and smoking heavily. He periodically removed a vodka bottle from his Sainsbury bag and took a large swig. In the meantime he was listening to soft rock and singing along, waving his fist in the air and playing with his Zippo lighter. At one point he leaned forward and touched the lady opposite on the knee. She was obviously surprised but didn’t react.
I have no particular issue with this chap. I’m sure he has his reasons for needing to be drunk at that time in the morning.
However the train was so crowded that it would have been very difficult to get away if his behaviour had escalated.
Every day commuters are faced with stressful conditions. The uncertainty of not knowing when you’ll arrive at work. Or whether you’ll be home in time to see your children. Having to be crammed together in over-crowded carriages creates tension; the new 700 Siemens trains have more standing room and fewer seats.
I used to dismiss stress as an abstract made up thing when I was younger and cockier because I wasn’t affected by it. But it comes from our basic need for control and safety. Depending on how you cope with it, it can be bad for you.
Our rail system is dysfunctional; it’s easy for the franchise operator to blame the infrastructure operator Network Rail when something goes wrong. The lack of drivers is the responsibility of CEO Charles Horton. He is an archetypal politician-cum-CEO making non-apologies, blaming others, and saying he’ll fix it. The driver problem has existed since 2015.
I set up the tlupdates feed in 2009 to help commuters get better information when travelling to work. At the time the service was run by First Capital Connect and very unreliable over the winter. The 7/7 bombers used the Thameslink line to travel into London, passing through my station around 30 minutes before I did. The initial report from our driver was a power failure at Kings Cross. I thought after, if there’s a better way of sharing information could that help people avoid a difficult or dangerous situation.
If we can’t get the trains to run on time, how else can we make the commute better?
I ran a survey a while back, and a common theme was that commuters would like a seat. Also knowing whether the train is shorter or longer helps. The Trainline, where I’m working now, have incorporated the BusyBot into their app which shares the likely location of seats.
The other option is not to commute at all.
I get the oportunity to work at home but I usually choose not to. I need a really quiet environment, and I appreciate having colleagues at hand if there is something I need to discuss. The collaboration tool Slack, so commonly used, doesn’t scale well particularly if you have the free version. It’s really hard to find relevant information among the noise. And you can’t tell if someone has read your message or not. It can take a few hours to get an answer.
Taking the Remote Work concept even further, I’ve been following Balaji Srinivasan’s work recently. He proposes there are places in the world where you can work with low living costs and save money. House prices are now so high in the UK that it’s very difficult for someone starting out to buy a place. The average income is around £27K with the average house price nearly 10 times that figure.
When we’re working remotely it’s important to stay connected. I believe face to face interaction is important. Being able to shake hands, or hug. And Johann Hari is on to something when he talks about environment and life experience being the cause of mental health difficulties.
I’d love to hear from you about anything I’ve written here. Feel free to email me.