I was waiting to take a train from Coventry to Birmingham a couple of days ago, and amongst the chatter on the platform, I heard some Chinese speakers. They were complaining that the train was delayed, and in fact all the trains were delayed by at least a few minutes that day for several reasons. It was then than I started thinking what Chinese people must think of British trains. I mean we do have a good system here in the UK, but the Chinese system probably has the edge (I’m talking about the Chinese high-speed trains, the slow trains are a totally different matter).
In China, you have to buy your own ticket, with your own ID, be it ID card or passport, so nobody can sell their ticket on to anyone else. When you enter the station, after an ID check, there is a security check and a metal detector…usually people pile mountains of bags on the conveyor belt, and a sleeping officer will be ‘checking’ the screen for weapons, but on the whole it feels slightly more secure than any UK train station where anyone can walk in and anonymously buy a ticket.
Only after these checks, are you in the train station. Therefore, everyone inside the station has a ticket to travel that day. Whereas in the UK, anyone can buy a ticket, at the machine or at the counter, and anyone is allowed inside the train station, where there are restaurants, shops and ATMs. Now, with ticket barriers operating at major UK train stations (including Coventry now, no skipping the fare!), you have to scan your ticket to be allowed on the platform.
This happens in China too, but in China, there are never platform alterations, and you’re only allowed onto your platform when your train is coming. If you’re waiting for the 11.05 to Hangzhou from platform 2, you can’t go and wait on the platform at 10.40 when they open the gates for the 10.45 train to Beijing. You wait in the large waiting room, rather than on the platform.
Also in China, everyone has a seat number and carriage number, there are some standing seats available, but not many and even if you have a standing seat, you will be told which carriage to stand in. On the platform, 5 minutes before the train arrives, everyone stands in a very neat line according to the marks on the floor which say the carriage number. When the train arrives, people first get off the train, then people get on the train in a very orderly fashion.
Flip back to the UK, where on platform 2 you could have people waiting for the 10.58 to Birmingham, the 11.05 to Bournemouth and the 11.12 to London on the same platform. Everyone is crowding around and then suddenly, a voice comes on the tannoy saying that the 10.58 has been delayed, and it will now depart from platform 4 at approximately 11.03. Everyone for the Birmingham train will barge past the other passengers, trying to find the stairs to get up and go across to platform 4. The train arrives and people will always try to get on whilst others are getting off, and nobody ever knows where they should stand on the platform. Sometimes you have a reserved seat, but the UK sells a lot of ‘open return’ tickets, meaning you can get on any train and don’t need to wait for a specific train, so lots of people don’t have seat reservations and sit in any place.
With a bit more organisation, in the UK too we could write the numbers (well, letters) of the carriages on the floor so people know where to stand waiting on the platform, we could make stations safer by asking people their names to write on the ticket, we could have unreserved carriages for people with open tickets and travelling by train could be a smoother process. Delays and platform alterations are bound to happen when you’re only travelling a short distance and signals, bridges and weather affects the times of trains, so not everything can be avoided.
I just feel sorry for those Chinese people who are used to travelling by high speed train, who come to the UK and have no idea what to do at the train station, because there’s so much chaos in their eyes.