Running for a train is good, actually: In defence of the frantic platform dash

Run! RUN! Euston station. Image: Getty.

There are few more dramatic everyday sights in this country than the crowd fighting to board an overcrowded train, waiting in hushed silence then igniting as the platform is announced. 

Normally reserved travellers narrow their eyes and sprint determinedly towards the train, wheelie bags flying in all directions. To find yourself involved feels like a Pamplona bull run, with smartly dressed office workers in place of flamboyant Spaniards.  

It’s most apparent on the first cheap off-peak train out of London in the evening and many passengers are fed up. The Guardian’s north of England editor Helen Pidd recently tweeted, “Is there anything more undignified than the platform dash for the 1900 from Euston to Manchester?” eliciting responses agreeing that it was the “worst thing in the world” and a “mad undignified sweaty dash”.

Train operators are keen for a change too, with proposals recently announced to reform fares so the divide between peak and off-peak is smoothed, meaning no more bunching on that first vastly cheaper train of the evening.

However, while it’s easy to see the downsides of the dash, I worry that we won’t appreciate what we’ve got until it’s gone.

In a world in which most train travel is reliably crap no matter what steps you take, the train dash can offer unexpected excitement and a rare chance to take control of your travelling fate.

While a Northern Rail journey will be late and uncomfortable no matter what, if you make the right choices at the concourse in London you can win yourself a prized seat on that cheap train. 

Imagine, for example, you’re arriving at a crowded Euston station at 1845, waiting for the always overcrowded 1900 train. As you enter the station you’re immediately faced with a number of choices. 

Do you head to the middle of the concourse to even out your chances of being close to the right platform? Do you go all out on one prediction and head way up to platform 5 or 13 (the high risk/ high reward approach)?

Or do you scour arrivals on the National Rail app to see which platform the last Manchester train pulled in at, staking your chances on this nugget of potentially game changing information? 


Getting this right and boarding the train seconds before the masses descend behind you is potentially the most rewarding moment you’ll experience on a rail journey (it’s a low bar, admittedly). Get it wrong however and you’ll be doing a Corbyn, stuck by the doors all the way to Stockport. 

I accept that all this is all probably less fun if you have kids in tow, health problems, or generally have just had enough of the drama. Which is why it’s worth mentioning the more serious reason for defending the dash.

Under the current system, while it’s certainly not cheap to get from Euston to Manchester off-peak (at £58.50 return with a railcard), it’s not dreadful. That’s always the price you pay on the day after 7pm; you get back to Manchester around 9; and the ticket lets you return on any off-peak train in the next month. In part this explains why those trains are so popular.

When train companies talk of “updating regulations around peak and off-peak travel” so demand is “spread more evenly across the day” they mean removing this guarantee of consistently priced off-peak travel.

Are we really to believe that a profit-making operator will choose to offer cheaper fares to the current crop of dashers? It seems entirely possible that a reformed system could instead see cheap fares beginning even later in the day, forcing those unable to pay a premium onto ever more inconvenient trains.

So, stressed passengers should be careful what we wish for. We may not only be about to lose one of the great spectacles of travel – we might also end up paying more in the process.

The author tweets as @matthew__dawson.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.