May 20, 2004

The Ever-Elusive Perfectly Timed Journey

Jackie D | Rail General

I've only been using public transport for seven years or so, since I came to Britain from the US. In that time, I've become somewhat obsessed with a certain aspect of travelling by bus and train: perfect timing.

I really hate being late for events or to meet people, but I'm almost as annoyed by arriving with too much time to kill. With the slight unpredictability, shall we say, of public transport, a fun-but-maddening game can be made of timing one's trip perfectly.

Yesterday evening was a case in point.

I was to travel from north east London/Essex -- zone five on the London Transport system -- to either Paddington or South Kensington. My partner, who I'd be meeting and who was travelling into Paddington from a business meeting in Reading, wasn't sure when his meeting would finish. So we weren't sure exactly where we were meeting, or at what time. Let's call these problems one and two.

Problem number three was that, unusually, I was not running at all late and in fact seemed to have plenty of time to spare to make it to South Ken or Paddington for...well, whatever time we'd be meeting. At 5.30 PM I was finally so sick of killing time that I decided to head out the door. I figured I could be lazy and get a bus to the train station if I had that much time to spare.

Well, it's a good thing I did leave early, because I (stupidly) hadn't realised that the high heels I was wearing would not allow me to totter along at the same pace as I usually manage in a pair of more sensible shoes. Best not to wait for that notoriously, unpredictably timed bus, then, I figured -- fortuitously so, as I walked past an almighty traffic jam on my way to the station which would have seen me seething in fury in an unmoving bus for at least fifteen minutes.

I reached the station with a good two minute cushion before my train -- ideal. Except the train didn't come, not for another ten minutes, with no announcement as to why it was late. Ho hum.

At Liverpool Street station in London, I headed for the westbound Circle Line Tube trains. Being stuck behind a particularly slow older person (bless her heart...) as I ascended the stairs meant that I missed the none-too-frequent Circle Line train by no more than ten seconds. If you've used public transport, you've experienced the kind of frustration such an experience brings, so I will refrain from describing to you all of the four-letter words that flashed through my mind as I saw that the next three trains on that platform would be District Line and Metropolitan Line trains -- that is to say, trains that were of no use whatsoever to me.

Finally, the Circle Line. Yay! But wait -- I still had no idea where to meet my partner. I sent him a text message: "Gone to SK." That was that, and saved me the hassle of traipsing in those high heels all around Paddington station just so we could meet and get right back on the Circle Line.

The journey between Liverpool Street and South Kensington was uneventful, apart from being sat opposite one of the most attractive women I've ever seen in my life. (This happens a lot on public transport, and with warm weather here, the women are wearing less and less. It does make travelling by bus and train a bit more interesting and a lot more worthwhile; the odds of finding yourself sat in close proximity to a scantily clad, gorgeous stranger in your own vehicle aren't that great.)

When I arrived at South Ken, I got off the Tube, walked five feet down the platform and straight into...my partner, who had just arrived on the platform opposite from Paddington. And off we toddled to the Royal Albert Hall for our 8 PM concert.

It doesn't always end so happily. To a large degree, you just can't plan this stuff. The perfectly timed journey is something I strive for every time I take public transport, and is so rarely achieved that I'm still glowing over this latest incident -- despite the fact that, later that same night, due to a technical glitch with Delice de France's soda machine, we missed the last fast train back to Reading by 48 seconds (which then meant that our drive from Reading to Colchester got us home at around 3 AM). Or maybe because of that fact, who knows? Public transport may not be old hat to me yet, but the frequent problems and timing disasters do make me appreciate such rare victories.

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Comments

Ah, but you have probably never experienced a really good public transport system (ie the one on Tokyo). You can get from anywhere to anywhere in a city of 30 million people by train of some sort, trains are always on time, and frequences are extremely high - you never have to wait more than five minutes. You have complete freedom to go anywhere you want rapidly whenever you want (until about midnight when it all closes down for the night). You wonder why it cannot be done elsewhere. (In some ways I think it becomes easier as population density increases. The higher the density the more fare revenue you get per unit of city space, and the more resources you get to build and operate a system. (Also, the more vital it becomes and the more you simple have to get it right.

Posted by Michael Jennings on May 21, 2004

Yes, this is true (although I was fairly impressed with the trains in Holland and Switzerland). But no matter how efficient and spectacular the public transport system, I'm sure everyone's experienced missing a train by mere seconds at least once. I may be unique in getting so annoyed at such things, though, even if the next one is only five minutes away.

Posted by Jackie D on May 21, 2004

Oh sure, but I think reliability is an issue there, too. If you know that another train is coming in five minutes, and you are certain that it will come because the trains are reliable, it is possible to remain far more relaxed about such things

Posted by Michael Jennings on May 21, 2004

That's it: I'm moving to Japan.

Posted by Jackie D on May 21, 2004

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