I started conceiving this column three and a half hours before writing these words, while I was with my wife and children in an incredibly long queue for the Eurostar, crossing the Gare du Nord with a temperature of 35 ° C. The problem was not the delay, but the discomfort, anxiety and uncertainty. It was impossible to read or even think because the tail was moving and crowding; it was dammed and redirected to unpredictable points for unknown reasons. There was almost a bad accident when an escalator pumped people into an already crowded space.
He wasn’t the most retarded I’ve ever seen, not by much. Thanks to an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano, I was once five days late for my wife’s birthday. But the Eurostar experience somehow packed a stressful season into just a few hours.
It was the appropriate climax for a far from smooth attempt to see the sights of Europe by train. Our train from Garmisch-Partenkirchen to Innsbruck was replaced by two bus trips. The train from Innsbruck to Verona was delayed and, despite the reservation months ago, we were not given a seat reservation. We spent an hour in a 40C waiting room in Verona, watching as our train to Milan was repeatedly postponed: just another 15 minutes, the departures board promised, again and again. And the journey from Milan to Paris was threatened by a canceled connection, which gave us a couple of hours to think about whether or not we would be allowed on the next train. I love the idea of traveling by train, but reality sometimes disappoints.
The curious thing is that, when we were actually traveling, everything was a pleasure. Even a bus substitute isn’t too shabby when driving through the Alps. Although we spent an inordinate amount of time trying and failing to confirm seat reservations, we rarely had a problem getting the seats themselves. The problem, in essence, was not the journey; it was the queue and the waiting and, more than anything else, the anxiety of not knowing.
This is true not only for vacation travel, but for the daily train-train (even “daily routine” sounds good in French). A famous study by Daniel Kahneman and the late Alan Krueger found that one of the least pleasant parts of anyone’s day was the morning commute, with the evening commute not far behind.
The reason may be that commuting is not only unpleasant, but tense enough that you can never fully get used to it. Commuters cannot afford complacency; they must always keep an eye on the gloom of their journey, lest it grow darker.
None of this would be new to Pete Dyson and Rory Sutherland, the authors of a delightful book called Transport for Humans. They cite various studies to support some obvious but overlooked ideas. For example, time flies when you travel but drags on when you wait (subjectively, one minute of waiting feels like three minutes of travel). A Dutch study found that trips on clean trains are about 20% shorter. I have nothing against faster trains, but traveling with clean trains is cheaper and we could start doing it tomorrow.
Dyson and Sutherland argue that transportation providers should take care of the neglected task of explaining what’s going on and reassuring people. How long is the queue? How late is the train? If I miss this train, what happens then?
If Eurostar had said: “Sorry, you will have to queue for a couple of hours and you will arrive in London two or three hours late, but we promise to put you on a train tonight”, the time spent in the queue would have been more easy to bear. Instead, we were told why there had been a few outages, but nothing about the implications for us as travelers, so we had no idea what to expect or what to do.
I asked Eurostar for an interview to discuss why it seemed so difficult for transport service providers to provide information to passengers, but no one could be made available to answer my questions. At least they are consistent.
Travelers find explanations useful even when there is no delay. It’s easy to get some guesswork out of the trip by providing large clocks, having departure boards show countdowns, or just telling people which direction the train is coming from.
There is also the question of what to provide to passengers while they wait at the station. Clean seats, tables, maybe even a power outlet – a little of that kind of thing goes a long way. No doubt space in older stations is precious, but it would be useful if a small portion of the budget and attention devoted to high-speed rail links were diverted to relaxing and productive waiting rooms.
While I work out this conclusion, it has been four hours since our arrival at the Gare du Nord and two and a half hours since our departure. I’m still waiting, but I’m on a stopped train. I have air conditioning (unstable), a comfortable seat, power and a table for my laptop. As a result, my mood improved significantly. It turns out that there is more to the art of travel than just moving.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on August 26, 2022.
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