She turned the handle of the main door of Walmer station. It was, of course, locked shut, because that station is only staffed up to 11 am, and it was already 1.15. She looked like a young tourist from somewhere else in Europe. On her back was a rucksack.
Ticket Office locked
I went up to her.
“The ticket office is shut at this time.
—Where can I buy a ticket?
—There is a machine. I’ll show you.”
We went around to the open entrance, and she studied the options on the Ticket machine.
“Where are you trying to go?
—London and then Surbiton. I have looked up the route – a train and then another train, a bus and then a train. London St Pancras, then Farringdon, then bus to Waterloo, then train to Surbiton.”
Choosing a ticket
She punched London St Pancras, one way, into the ticket machine and was shocked at the price of £55.
“Can I pay for one ticket all the way to Surbiton?
—Yes, try it, but you will still have to pay extra for the underground train and the bus.
—Why? In Germany public transport in many cities is free.”
(Not true. You have to buy a ticket even in Berlin but a ticket can be valid for a mixed journey where you use U-bahn, tram or bus).
“Transport for London, TfL, runs all the London buses and the Tube. They are a different company to Southeastern. You will probably have to pay about £3 to TfL.”
She was looking worried. So I offered further advice on how to travel on the cheaper route.
“If you are willing to wait here for another hour, you can catch that Southeastern train going to Charing Cross. Get out at Waterloo East, and walk across to Waterloo. The trains to Surbiton go from there.”
She checked on her phone.
Then she suddenly asked, “Is there a toilet on this station?
—No, it closed. Sorry, they have been withdrawing services from these little stations for some time.
—Is there a toilet on the train?
—Yes, on the high speed train. That is a reason for getting the more expensive ticket. I mean if you can’t wait an hour for the cheaper train. And in any case, the toilets on the cheaper southeastern train are often out of order.
She was already moving away from the ticket machine.
“I do not have time to buy the ticket on this machine. Can I pay on the train?
—Yes, I don’t think they will try to fine you. You are clearly a foreign tourist, a German. If you can pay through your phone, they will then check that you have paid with their little handheld machines.”
The train was now coming in so we got on together. I went straight to a table and beckoned her to sit there too. She humped her backpack on to the seat and went straight to the toilet. I started eating my packed lunch. She came back and unwrapped hers.
Foot passenger on cross-Channel ferry
“So where are you from in Germany?
—How has your journey been so far?
—I used the Germany ticket. Have you heard about that?
—A little – tell me more
—I travelled from Berlin to Cologne with that ticket. You can only use it on the regional lines, not high speed. It was cheap and I got to Cologne in 15 hours,
—How did you cross the Channel?
—I came on the ferry as a foot passenger. But I made mistakes in booking my ticket. One ferry (DFDS) does not allow foot passengers – only if you have a bicycle. I thought maybe to tell them my bicycle is broken. But the taxi driver told me not to, so I wasted that ticket. He took me to another ferry (P&O) where you can book as a foot passenger.
—How much did it cost you?
—About 40 euros, plus the wasted money.
—So have you come straight from the ferry? Why were you in Walmer?
—There is a campsite where I spent the night.
—Was it comfortable? Was it okay?
We continued munching our lunch, and she dived into her phone to get more information.
“So why are you going to Surbiton?
—There is a campsite there. But now I am thinking it is too expensive to go to Surbiton and then back to London the next day.
—Are you thinking about staying in London then? London hotels are very expensive.”
She was busy plugging her phone into the recharger at the seat. I was surprised that the ticket inspector had not yet arrived.
A little PR for the region
We were coming out of the Dover tunnel, so I pointed out Dover Castle to her.
“There are many sites to see in Kent, Canterbury for instance. Why don’t you stop here for a few days?
—I have to be in London tomorrow.
—Because I am going to cat-sit for a week. Do you like cats?
—I don’t have a cat.” (I did not add ..because they murder birds…)
“This is a very nice cat, white with blue eyes. I have the photo.
—That cat need not take up all your time. So you will be able to see some of the sights of London too.
—Yes, first I was planning to go to other places too, like Brighton. But now I see the price of train tickets, I will stay only in London for this visit.”
We were approaching Folkestone, and she wanted to know where the Channel Tunnel was. I pointed to the overhead line and explained that it is for Eurostar. I also pointed to the red DB wagons in the freight yard and explained that part of cross-channel freight on this route is run by Deutsche Bahn.
An inspector didn’t call
There was the usual loud-speaker announcement about tickets marked “not for high speed line” not being valid for a journey beyond Ashford. She fingered her phone rapidly and announced:
“So – I have bought a ticket. It is much cheaper – only £30 something.
—You are lucky then…you have saved £10. But the ticket inspector might still come now.
—The ticket shows on my phone, but they might notice the time I booked.
—And if it shows only from Ashford, you will have to explain this bit of the journey.
—I will change trains at Ashford and go on that Southeastern train. I am now going to Brixton. There is a hostel there. Better than paying for a ticket to Surbiton.”
The ticket inspector never came. We parted at Ashford.
“Goodbye. I hope you and the cat get along.”
Today’s impoverished young visitor could be tomorrow’s wealthy tourist
I think this story shows a number of features of travel on Southeastern/highspeed trains nowadays. Do you think she was a cheat for not paying for the journey from Walmer to Ashford, or were the services so inferior (no ticket office, no toilet at station, no ticket inspector on the train) that she should be exonerated? This type of traveller should be considered by those who plan the cross-channel ferries, the trains and the buses. She might be young and trying to travel cheaply now, but if she has good experiences she may be the higher paying tourist of tomorrow.
The train companies of EU countries that are doing their utmost to attract passengers with cheap tickets for leisure travel, and especially for youth, are doing the right thing. Southeastern does not match up to that. The UK has some of the highest prices of train tickets in Europe.