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.