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.


“Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis”

You BET! Oh GOD. Image: Getty.

Today, the mayor of London called for new powers to introduce rent controls in London. With ever increasing rents swallowing more of people’s income and driving poverty, the free market has clearly failed to provide affordable homes for Londoners. 

Created in 1988, the modern private rented sector was designed primarily to attract investment, with the balance of power weighted almost entirely in landlords’ favour. As social housing stock has been eroded, with more than 1 million fewer social rented homes today compared to 1980, and as the financialisation of homes has driven up house prices, more and more people are getting trapped private renting. In 1990 just 11 per cent of households in London rented privately, but by 2017 this figure had grown to 27 per cent; it is also home to an increasing number of families and older people. 

When I first moved to London, I spent years spending well over 50 per cent of my income on rent. Even without any dependent to support, after essentials my disposable income was vanishingly small. London has the highest rent to income ratio of any region, and the highest proportion of households spending over a third of their income on rent. High rents limit people’s lives, and in London this has become a major driver of poverty and inequality. In the three years leading up to 2015-16, 960,000 private renters were living in poverty, and over half of children growing up in private rented housing are living in poverty.

So carefully designed rent controls therefore have the potential to reduce poverty and may also contribute over time to the reduction of the housing benefit bill (although any housing bill reductions have to come after an expansion of the system, which has been subject to brutal cuts over the last decade). Rent controls may also support London’s employers, two-thirds of whom are struggling to recruit entry-level staff because of the shortage of affordable homes. 

It’s obvious that London rents are far too high, and now an increasing number of voices are calling for rent controls as part of the solution: 68 per cent of Londoners are in favour, and a growing renters’ movement has emerged. Groups like the London Renters Union have already secured a massive victory in the outlawing of section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. But without rent control, landlords can still unfairly get rid of tenants by jacking up rents.

At the New Economics Foundation we’ve been working with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority to research what kind of rent control would work in London. Rent controls are often polarising in the UK but are commonplace elsewhere. New York controls rents on many properties, and Berlin has just introduced a five year “rental lid”, with the mayor citing a desire to not become “like London” as a motivation for the policy. 

A rent control that helps to solve London’s housing crisis would need to meet several criteria. Since rents have risen three times faster than average wages since 2010, rent control should initially brings rents down. Our research found that a 1 per cent reduction in rents for four years could lead to 20 per cent cheaper rents compared to where they would be otherwise. London also needs a rent control both within and between tenancies because otherwise landlords can just reset rents when tenancies end.

Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis – but it’s not without risk. Decreases in landlord profits could encourage current landlords to exit the sector and discourage new ones from entering it. And a sharp reduction in the supply of privately rented homes would severely reduce housing options for Londoners, whilst reducing incentives for landlords to maintain and improve their properties.

Rent controls should be introduced in a stepped way to minimise risks for tenants. And we need more information on landlords, rents, and their business models in order to design a rent control which avoids unintended consequences.

Rent controls are also not a silver bullet. They need to be part of a package of solutions to London’s housing affordability crisis, including a large scale increase in social housebuilding and an improvement in housing benefit. However, private renting will be part of London’s housing system for some time to come, and the scale of the affordability crisis in London means that the question of rent controls is no longer “if”, but increasingly “how”. 

Joe Beswick is head of housing & land at the New Economics Foundation.