ORAN BURKE

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Photograph © Matt Buck 2012

Gatwick Express at London Victoria

January 7, 2013

Is this the nicest train commute in Britain?

The New Year rise in rail fares has angered many commuters with another above-inflation increase in the price of many season tickets. One of the many complaints, aside from how people will be able to afford fares that rise faster than wages, is about value for money. The service received doesn’t live up to the price and with a yearly Travelcard from Brighton to London Victoria now costing £4,928, it might need to include a back rub on the journey home.

This yearly hullabaloo is to be expected, particularly when there is so much uncertainty about the economy. However the comparisons with continental rail services and moaning about privatisation or last year’s West Coast Rail fiasco are futile until the fairy godmother of railways waves her magic wand and converts pumpkins into glittering carriages. As this isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, travelling in and out of London during rush hour will never be fun, but maybe, just maybe it could be bearable and I think I know how.

Last summer I was offered a three month contract in London which would help pay for the studies I was due to take up in September. I hadn’t commuted for more than a couple of weeks at a time to the capital since moving to Brighton and I approached a longer stretch with trepidation, not being a fan of early mornings or peak travel.

I researched the quickest way to get to Tottenham Court Road for nine in the morning and found the only viable option was taking the train at about seven thirty to get into Victoria for 8:35, leaving 25 minutes to get to work. I knew from past experience this was possible if everything went smoothly but I would be in the hands of the railways and I’d have to put up with whatever slaps they gave me. I had also worked for the same company before and knew that their day started somewhere between nine and half past so there was leeway to be late.

I’m no military planner when it comes to journeying but I do live a 15 minute walk from Brighton station so it would have been hard to be late that first morning. Vaguely aware that the Small Batch Coffee Company had a morning stall outside I tried to get there a little early and scored my first success of the day. I also discovered there was another that served croissants, which very quickly covered a couple of basic daily commuting needs, and these efficient collection points became part of my routine over the next three months.

The next revelation was that at this time Gatwick Express trains are standard on the Victoria route. These are far better than the usual uncomfortable bone-rattlers serving almost every other station heading into London, more like a long distance carriage than a commuter. That morning I entered one of the first I arrived at, a choice based on looking through the window and seeing free seats. There were a lot and I became used to this unexpected pleasure as it happened every day.

The rear carriages were generally empty as most people went to the front to be nearer the exit in Victoria but I was more interested in space, as trains are no different from any other form of transport – not made for people over six feet tall. Almost every morning I had a comfy double seat to myself, destined never to have to snuggle into a stranger’s armpit. This also meant a window to look out over the passing countryside should the mood take me. Always the windows on the left though, the early morning sun shone blindingly in through the right hand ones, something I discovered quite early on.

Once settled, I noticed the quietness. The majority of people were, like me, calmly sat in their own double seats, appreciating the space and soothing tranquillity as much as I was. Not long after setting off the trolley passed through serving tea, acceptable coffee and moderately stale croissants – perfect for those mornings when the bed held on a little longer than normal. Invariably pulled by somebody friendly and smiley, I may not always have been happy in return having never mastered the art of mornings.

Now just awake, with caffeine taking effect, I sneak a look at my lucky fellow travellers as the train stops at Hassocks, Wivelsfield and Haywards Heath before arriving at Gatwick. The dress code in Brighton is a little more casual but as the journey progresses, suited workers and primly dressed airline crew board, looking on impassively as they wait another day at the same spot on the platform. I still have a double seat all to myself though as there’s one for everyone. A couple of times over the three months I experimented with moving further forward, a mistake I never made more than twice. Never underestimate the obsessive nature of the commuter, looking to save two minutes at a ticket barrier by sitting at the front of the train. Many of them were sharing their double seat!

At Gatwick the biggest interchange on the journey takes place, the stewards and stewardesses leave to catch their flights while another batch get on having just arrived off theirs. Tourists and day-tripping business-people join us and a few random travellers and airport workers disembark. The trolley leaves as well, only to be replaced by an identical one which gets pulled through the carriages during the remaining half hour trip to London in case you missed it the first time. This portion of the journey is where I’m finally awake, surveying the city as we amble along, getting slower as we near Victoria, still enjoying my double seat.

Arriving at our destination, the platform is busy as are the ticket barriers but I have a serenity that doesn’t let the chaos affect my mood. Walking across the busy concourse dodging frazzled commuters is more of a slapstick game than an irritation and it is only when I am flung into the horror that is Victoria Underground Station at rush hour that reality starts to snap at my heels again.

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