When trains stop at stations but passengers can’t use them…

This content is 12 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

As I paid for a ticket to for the rail journey into London this morning, I was reminded of my anger and frustration the last time I made this trip, herded like cattle onto a packed commuter train, whilst being refused access to one of the many trains that stop at my station but which travellers are unable to use because they are either “to pick up” or “to set down” only.

As a nation, we tend to blame all that is wrong with our railways on privatisation but this practice is not new. Indeed, it serves to show that, even in the halcyon days of nationalised rail service, some ludicrous decisions were made – and that some of those decisions still stand today.

I live just outside Milton Keynes, a town 50 miles north of London with a generally good rail service, from two train operating companies, London Midland and Virgin Trains. London Midland operates stopping and semi-fast services whilst Virgin runs the express (formerly inter-city) trains (Southern also operates services via west London). But there is a flaw – and it’s a big one. Between 07:14 and 09:19 southbound, and between 15:43 and 18:43 northbound, passengers are not allowed to board Virgin trains that stop at Milton Keynes. And yes, you read that correctly, passengers are not allowed to board trains that already stop at their station at the busiest time of the day!

Last week, faced with huge queues for a the 16:48 London Midland service for which the inbound train had not yet arrived, I tried to board the 16:43 Virgin train instead. At the ticket barrier I was told “this train doesn’t stop at Milton Keynes” but, when I pointed out that it does, at 17:13, the Virgin Trains official still refused me access to the platform.
How do I know about the unadvertised stops? Well, aside from working timetable information being available online, looking at Milton Keynes arrival and departure information on the public timetable clearly showed a train at 17:13 which was the 16:43 from Euston.

I can understand the desire to keep seats free on long-distance trains for long-distance travellers: that’s why seats are sold with reservations and also why there are fare structures that limit travel on peak-time journeys. I can also see the timetabling logic (when I have travelled to Manchester, trains are often “late” when they stop at Stockport “to set down only” but “on time” when they make it to Piccadilly a few minutes later, due to the recovery time built in to the timetable). But there is a difference here: Milton Keynes is 50 miles from London;  it’s not a suburb of the same conurbation, like Watford is to London or Stockport is to Manchester. Preventing travellers from boarding/leaving trains here is equivalent to saying that passengers can’t use Virgin trains from Wolverhampton to Coventry or from Manchester to Stoke-on-Trent and that they should use local services instead. Madness!

When I vented my frustrations on Twitter, Virgin Trains backed up their position, but some people suggested that those with cheap tickets shouldn’t be able to use the fast trains. Let me just be completely clear: there are discounted Virgin-only or London Midland-only fares but I was attempting to travel with a full-price peak ticket – in other words a ticket that should allow travel on any service between Milton Keynes and London.

So, what’s the real point of this 500-word missive?

Give Milton Keynes the express train service that it deserves! Network Rail spent millions adding platforms to our station so that more trains can stop here, yet one of the train operating companies doesn’t let the passengers get on or off at the busiest time of the day.

The trains may be privatised but the railway is a piece of national infrastructure, and Richard Branson et al would do well to remember who their customers are when  complaining about losing lucrative franchises to rival bidders*…

*I appreciate that this decision was later reversed due to issues with the bidding process – that doesn’t change the fact that Virgin Trains sometimes seems to forget who its customers are.

5 thoughts on “When trains stop at stations but passengers can’t use them…

  1. Dear Mark,

    I fully agree with your missive! I am a commuter who pays the £4000+ per annum to travel to and from Milton Keynes to London. I may be wrong but I think that part of the problem is that Milton Keynes is a London Midland Station and they do not allow Virgin trains to stop at Milton Keynes. As a commuter coming back from London to collect my daughter from her nursery 2 days a week I am getting seriously disgruntled standing on overcrowded London Midland trains which are often late, watching empty virgin trains sailing by.

    I think the Milton Keynes Hierarchy – our MPs etc should engage on this issue because MK is being seriously damaged by this practice.

    There may be a reason for this practice that I can not fathom – if there is I invite anyone who knows the answer to explain it to me.

  2. I feel for you Oliver – at least I don’t have to commute every day. I’ve heard the “London Midland don’t allow it” argument before but seems odd as there are some Virgin services that do actually stop, but only to pic up northbound or set down southbound.

  3. I am on a slow moving London Midlands train as I write having been hounded out of a Virgin 07:40 train to London which I jumped on as I saw it stop, I ran after it & jumped on because I am to London & I have a season ticket which allow to use ‘any permitted route’.
    They said it is ‘any permitted train’, if any of you folks’ tickets say ‘any permitted train’, do let me know because mine says ‘any permitted route’, this route for me being starting at Milton Keynes going to London. I believe this is where the confusion arose, the train wouldn’t look at my ticket claiming they know it says ‘any permitted train’, I am not making this up, mine says ‘any permitted route’. This is very, very, very annoying.

  4. Totally understand your frustration Michael. You’re right – you have a ticket for the route and it’s valid with any train company, but some trains only stop to set down or pick up (depending on the direction) so staff will prevent you from using it (meanwhile the train continues to London with spare capacity). It’s complete madness…

  5. Hello Mark, I understand a lot about Pick up only and Set down only, What happens out of London Euston on Virgin Trains services is that between 15:01 and 19:01 on weekdays, Virgin Trains class all services out of London Euston as peak and as these services are busy, All services with the exception of a few services are pick up only at Milton Keynes Central, The train will not be advertised on the departure boards at Euston and this is done to detour passengers from going on the Virgin services, Although some people will still travel on the services to Milton Keynes and some train managers actually say the train calls at Milton Keynes but some will enforce the rules, For example, If i was to get on a Virgin Train service like the 17:10 from Euston to Holyhead with a Milton Keynes single or return, You may end up being charged a single to Crewe due to the next station where you can alight or board being Crewe, As the service is not advertised and its not intended to be used by passengers to Milton Keynes, When it comes to set down only, This means the train is calling at the station but passengers are prohibited from boarding the train itself, There is 2 examples, At Watford Junction, If a Glasgow to London Euston service calls for set down only and you board, You travel at your own risk as you could end paying a single from the last station you could board from which would have been Warrington Bank Quay, Another example is at Motherwell, There is only 1 train a day that sets down only there towards Glasgow and its the last train from Manchester Airport to Glasgow, It calls there but any passengers who are seen getting on, Are actually removed from the train and are told to wait the next train you can board, The train is not advertised on the station departure board although there is an announcement prior to the train arriving, This is the only train that sets down at Motherwell so passengers there will not be used to the idea as such. Its interesting how Pick up only and Set down only work indeed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.