On several days in December, I have shivered on Walmer station platform waiting for the train. Quite often someone asks, “Isn’t there a waiting room?”
Or they try the locked door of the waiting room.
Not locked this morning
So I was rather glad to arrive earlier in the morning than usual, during the hours (6:30–11) when the ticket office, waiting room and toilets are actually open. I went in, and was delighted to see someone on duty at the ticket office. As all my fellow passengers had left the station and there was no queue for tickets, I went up to the hatch to talk with this clerk.
First I praised how well-kept these indoor premises are. There are several well-grown plants in the corners, a wreath of Christmas baubles on the toilet door, and a Christmas tree in the corner of the waiting room. I asked how long she had been working there.
“31 years,” was the proud reply.
A history of closing
I asked her about the history of the closing of these facilities. She said it had been restricted hours since about 2002. I said it was such a pity as the premises were so nice, and needed during the cold weather. She said that they are adamant the premises cannot be left unlocked and unattended. For some years, a taxi company hired the office at the end, which they could only reach by going through the waiting room, so these premises (and the toilet) were left open. But vandals abused this and set alight to decorations.
The taxi company got an outside door put in for their office, and Southeastern Railway locked up the other rooms whenever she was not on duty.
I asked whether they had advertised the premises as rentable space, for instance for a café. She said they had tried to interest a company that supplied coffee machines but they said there were not enough customers even for that.
As I am a member of Railfuture, and keep in touch with news from other parts of Britain about how some communities are managing to save their station facilities, I have continued to turn over various options in my head.
With a small kitchen set up, could the space be used for local social clubs? There is a regular Thursday coffee morning at a house just further down the street, for instance. Or would the mixture of “club” members tend to exclude the rail passengers seeking warmth?
Would a TV for sports viewing enhance the rentability of the space?
Why not develop one room with computers for gaming? Or for education?
What about the threat of youth vandalism? Clearly, from bitter experience, the authorities have decided that there must always be a responsible adult around whenever the premises are in use. Could better locks enable out-of-hours usage by rail passengers only? My mind went into techno overdrive. Could a lock be installed with a code that only those with a valid ticket could access? But then in realistic recognition of teenage propensity for pranks, the school children with season tickets would have to be excluded from this privilege… tough. But then they would probably see this as a challenge, and find some way to get into the privileged space… if only to use the toilet. And even valid passengers would probably be careless and leave the door open as they leapt for their trains.
The facility that is most needed is the toilet. The fact that it is locked out of use and that Southeastern are prone to announce that some toilets on a train are not working is a disincentive to travel by train. I wonder if there has been any research on this.
If we are serious about shifting more of the travelling public back onto using the railways, then careful scrutiny of all the services is necessary. I agree that ticket prices have to be affordable so financing the extra hours of staffing from passenger revenue may be incompatible with the aim of keeping down costs.
One creative idea might be for the post office and railway to team up in parcel distribution again. The original mission of Royal Mail (as envisaged by Antony Trollope, among other pioneers) was to offer a mail service to all parts of the British Isles, at standardised prices, using stamps. The railways carried the Royal Mail (both postbags and parcels) but they also had their own service at each station. For instance, I have fond memories of Cranbrook station (before it closed in 1961). It was staffed by two men, one rather short and stocky and the other tall and thin. We met one or other of them several times a year when our school trunks were dispatched or collected. This was a useful service as our car, though a large Ford Zephyr Zodiac, would not have been able to take two school trunks safely.
The economics of British rail freight then was that 90% of it was the high-value industrial bulk consignments (coal, metal, wood etc), and only 10% were these individual consignments. British Rail mostly closed this service down in the 1970s except for the briefly successful Red Star service which, in competition with Royal Mail, ran express dispatch between large urban stations. It was profitable and was valued by printers and even lawyers, surveyors and architects needing to send rather large or cumbersome packages to clients. Some of these documents are now online, of course.
However, online shopping has greatly increased the revenue from small parcels. Royal Mail now has other competitors for this. The market rationale for competition is that this should bring down the prices. It is true that the ease with which anyone can order online, and get delivery to their doorstep, has changed the market entirely. But now climate change is putting all this road traffic under scrutiny. Do we really want more and more delivery vans chugging down our residential streets, emitting some harmful particulates even if they are EVs? The more that is sent by road, the more potential for traffic jams.
A better system would be to have collection points at places where people need to visit anyway, such as the collection lockers now available at some supermarkets. Now my idea is that rail stations would be ideal places for such collection lockers, as short-term drop-off parking is mostly available nearby. Customers can easily walk or cycle to the station.
The need for revenue generation
What is needed is a revenue-generating activity that can be situated at these medium-sized stations, open for about 16 hours a day. Railways should be required to carry parcels again. If you order online, it should be cheaper if you collect from the station. Evening services would be available again, as in the Red Star days. In some rural areas, this might be a great convenience for some specialist dispatches (eg day-old chicks?) The offices should be staffed for both dispatch and collection. Left Luggage facilities could even be reopened! Increased footfall means that toilets and waiting rooms could open up again without the threat of teenage vandalism.
But I am dreaming…we cannot return to full-service rail station facilities while all the incentives are given to more and more road transport to deliver our goods, and the number of cars on British roads ever-increasing (some 32 million, and rising). People would rather pester politicians about potholes in the roads than the lack of waiting rooms and toilets in their nearest station.