My daughter was on her way to an evening flight from Heathrow but we wanted to spend a last day together at the art galleries in London. So we used the Left Luggage office at St Pancras International station to deposit her large suitcase.
This is a well-used facility and we were in a queue of about 10 people waiting to put our case through the security scanner and then get a deposit ticket, payable on collection. The price is £5 for less than three hours, or £15 for up to 24 hours. It is also possible to deposit a suitcase there and they will take it to Heathrow. All very convenient for tourists.
But what about such facilities at stations in the rest of the country? They seem to have disappeared, along with other railway station services. The spaces are now either abandoned or let out to other businesses. In my youth, many more stations had a Left Luggage facility.
Closure of Left Luggage facilities
I first noticed their closure after the Irish bomb incidents in England in the 1980s. There were notices that these facilities were closed for security reasons. I suppose the fear was that concealed timed devices could trigger an explosion, with loss of life and damage to a station, or even to the track and trains. Manual searches of suitcases are too time-consuming and embarrassing, and it is expensive to install the x-ray scanner, airport style. But even once Irish politics calmed down with the Good Friday settlement of 1995, there was still no return of Left Luggage at non-metropolitan stations.
9/11 brought even more reductions of Left Luggage. In 2001, I was actually on sabbatical and in the US in October. I had a heavy suitcase as I was travelling for three months in the northern winter. I had appointments at two offices in Washington concerning higher education, but unfortunately they are situated on opposite sides of the Washington Circle, near Capitol Hill. I had come from New York by the high speed Amtrak Acela train, which makes the journey in about three hours. I had planned to leave my suitcase at the station during my day in Washington, and then collect it before travelling onwards.
What about my suitcase?
But the left luggage was closed due to security precautions. So I had to lug that suitcase to the first office. The person I had hoped to see was not there, and there was no record of my appointment. However, they let me phone him and fix up an appointment for the afternoon. Meanwhile I had to get to the other appointment by walking to the other side of the circle. What about my suitcase? This distressed traveller had to plead with their security officer to be allowed to leave it in the first office. My fear was that in the dire anxieties post 9/11 they would refuse. I offered to open the suitcase. We looked at each other, eye-to-eye… and he trusted me and allowed me to leave the suitcase there all morning… phew.
One can book London left luggage storage here.
Problem for budget tourists
Closure of Left luggage at rail stations tends to affect especially international travellers who have onward itineraries. This is not a problem for those who are staying in a hotel where they can leave luggage while they do their tour or fulfill business appointments. It is not a problem for those who have hired a car. But it is a problem for the budget tourist who might want to just see a notable sight before moving on by train. This is obviously a frequent enough need, at places like the British Museum and National Gallery, for both to have specifications on their website about the maximum size of suitcase or backpack accepted in their cloakrooms, hence, possibly the queue at St Pancras of international travellers keen to deposit their large items there before going on tour or shopping in London.
But what about local needs at smaller stations? Another daughter comes at the weekend with her girls to stay in Ashford for the weekend. We would like to go to the seaside at Camber Sands, or Folkestone. But they come laden with backpacks of their overnight clothes. There is no left luggage at the seaside stations… grrr. If they stop off in Ashford, there is no left luggage there either… grrr. This means a delay of an hour or more while they trek up to my house to deposit their packs before we all go down to the station again. The most convenient option would have been for me to join their train from London at Ashford, and all get out at a seaside station which has Left Luggage facilities.
Train service only for luggage-less
The cost-cutting mentality that has axed services like Left Luggage is blind to the wider economics of the revenues that travellers bring. If they want the public to swap their cars for train travel, they must make it easier to leave luggage at stations. How many travellers would go shopping at the Designer Outlet, if only they could drop off their luggage first? Or visitors travelling to London by train who would go to Canterbury for a day’s spend, if they could drop off their luggage at the station first? We just don’t know because the rail system mostly is run as for luggage-less commuters.
Car system given preference
There is still the security concern. I doubt if the smaller stations could afford the full service with a scanner and a staff person to manage it. But what about self-service lockers, like at swimming pools? Could they be positioned far enough from the track, behind the station building, and with a security camera? With some electronic wizardry, they could even be booked in advance along with the ticket, and use a locker-specific code to open.
Or are onward train travellers with luggage too rare to bother about? Of course they are rare, because the national systems give preference to the private car or car-hire.