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The Portsmouth – Waterloo Line experience.
South West Trains
Member Name: Irp13
South West Trains
Date: 31/07/01, updated on 31/07/01 (3011 review reads)
I feel that its about time that I wrote an opinion of my experience of South West Trains since I've gone through so many of the facets of their trains upon this line. For around five months from last October to this February I was commuting most days to Guildford from Havant (about eight miles from Portsmouth city centre and the first town that the train goes to after leaving Portsea Island). This means that I travels when the floods happened and in the engineering aftermath of the Hatfield crash.
STATE OF THE SERVICE:
Morning Rush hour (until 9/10am):
I freely admit that quite rarely used these since they more than double the cost of my journey. As I remember peak time returns to Guildford from Havant cost £13+ compared to £9+ for an off-peak return or (for me) with a railcard fare of £6+. So your paying premium prices since the train companies want to encourage you to use the later services since the early morning services are too busy. Also another gripe about these peak time fares is the way there seemed to be little consensus between the station staff when these fares finish and cheap day returns become available, I'd managed to buy a cheap day return at just gone 9am on one day but on another I've had to wait to post 10am. The peak hour trains do at least tend to be clean (although not always rain proof – once I sat in a seat and found that water was pouring out of the emergency cord hole). At Havant you can get a pretty free pick in what seat you want and don't yet have to sit next to anyone if you don't want to. However usually by the time you reach Haslemere (approx. half way along the line) the train will around full seated capacity meaning that sometimes people will have to stand for the rest of their journey.
Daytime Travel (10am-4pm):
Daytime is probably the best time to catch a train, they vary in fullness but its rare that they ever get to the situation that you can't find a seat, an
d sometimes you can get a whole carriage to yourself. The cleanliness is of a fair standard generally, there will collections seats that are litter strewn but they can easily be avoided on most journeys.
Evening Rush hour (4pm-7/8pm):
This is much akin to morning rush hour with all the same problems. It tends to even be quite bad on North bound trains. Whilst it is bad on normal weekdays the last time you should think of travelling at this time is Friday as its quite simply unbearable.
Evening/Late Night (7/8pm onwards):
These services are a bit like the daytime services expect its dark and a bit busier going Southward. On these trains headed South you get a lot of men in suits still and everyone generally seems half dead and not being able to wait 'til they get home.
The Last Train:
Here's another of the regular journeys I've made. On the northbound train this can be unsettlingly quiet with hardly anyone journeying past Havant (on one occasion it was literally the guard, the driver and myself, which then had a couch service due engineering works on which I was the only passenger). On the southbound train the experience is rather different, you tend to have an odd array of people, you have the youth element you've been down the pub for the night, the suits (presumably also been down the pub all night by the state of some of them), theatre goers and then a random smattering of people (including film makers on one particularly strange night). If there's a big band on in London you'll get a horde of fans travelling home (Britney Spears fans were the ones that scared me, the Marilyn Manson fans were funny since they all got picked up at the station by their Mummy's and Daddy's). On this service it can be difficult to get a seat if your not wanting to sit opposite anyone. Cleanliness depends on the direction of travel, northbound they seem cleaned for the following morning often but Southbound you
'll be able to tell how much food Burger King sells on Waterloo station. I have to say the last train tends to be a largely unthreatening experience.
The station I use are:
Havant, the staff are usually friendly and helpful. Quite often the atmosphere in the station is far from friendly due to things such as kids. However after about 9pm your on your own as there will be no staff, this also leads to lack of destination information which can be annoying for the less frequent traveller.
Fratton, is a station I only really use for the last train. It used to have a member of staff until the last train but last time I was there there was no one working there. Here again there are no announcements or screens in operation late at night which can be hazardous with trains going along three different routes from there. This lead to my experience documented below under 'Useless Company'.
Guildford, is a well manned station with lots of staff right up until the last train and you'll also have the cleaning crews around tidying up for the following mornings passengers. For the last train your almost guaranteed to have at least one security guard who tends to board the last Portsmouth bound train. Its never that threatening even with lots of idiots who have come out of the pubs but it can be slightly rowdy.
Waterloo, not much to say about it since I don't use it very much but just to say don't expect to be able to read the destination boards easily now they've replaced them with electronic monitor ones.
The timetable is quite good in the week and on Saturdays, you'll never get enough trains for rush hour since the current infrastructure simply can't support more trains. Daytime there are four trains to and from London an hour. Two of these are fast trains and the other two are slow trains but one stops at all stations whereas the other skips the post Haslemer
e stations since there is a separate train from Haslemere to London. In the evening the southbound timetable is quite good but northbound it is quite appalling post 8:30pm with an hourly or less service running. The biggest timetabling is on Sundays when there is but two trains hour (a fast and a slow one). Whilst this is not disastrous in itself (although it does lead to crowded trains) it the way they've scheduled them ten minutes apart, so even at a mainline station you may have to wait for fifty minutes.
These come in two main varieties, the 60's slam door carriages and the nineties new stock. Each of these has its own advantages and disadvantages. The new trains obviously must have some quite substantial safety improvements (not least the doors). These trains tend to only be run as fast trains, so if you get on at a small station you'll be stuck with slam door. The doors on the new trains are at either end of the carriage meaning if your not sure when your station is coming up its probably best to sit near-ish the end of the carriage – although they do wait in station for a fair time normally. The doors are motor driven and you can't open them until the guard releases them. Whilst these are very good once when it was raining particularly heavily the doors did fail meaning everyone had to exit via the guards carriage – the only old style door. There are no opening windows on these trains but instead they are all air conditioned – this does always cope mind on really hot days, the the guard can open the door windows with a square key that brings some slight relief. A warning for tall people, since all the seats in most carriages face the same way (coach style) it can be quite cramped for those of us over six foot, to compound this problem the seat spacing varies through the carriage but the difference is imperceptible until you sit down. The only way to truly ensure adequate leg room is to sit at one of
the table – normally the carriage with a drivers cab that isn't first class tend to have a full half carriage of tables.
The slam door trains come in several varieties but are all basically the same. One type seems to extra noisy carriages – really annoying for those of us who like to listen to music on the train without going deaf (my Walkman has failed to overpower some trains even at full volume) – this can be helped a bit by shutting ALL the windows in a carriage but it will inevitably still be loud enough to annoy. There is one advantage of these really noisy carriages, they almost always are the ones with arms on either side of every seat, leading to less invasion of personal space. If you get one of these you may get the carriages with five seats across the carriage, arranged in a three seater aisle then a two seater. Whilst these are perfectly comfy trains to travel on when you've got a seat to yourself or only sharing the three seater with one other person, when it gets crowded these are a most unpleasant as you all end up not having enough width to fit in. Finally there's the happy medium carriage that's less noisy and less cramped than the previous carriages respectively, but then you may get a mix of these carriages in any one train. All these carriages will always have the facing seat design which is ideal for the taller customer at the less busy times since you no longer have your knees trying to penetrate the hard plastic of the seat in fronts backing. I must say that I prefer these trains simply because the additional space that improves comfort and makes it easier to store your luggage near you.
The guards carriage can be used to convey more bulky items or bikes. Usually a train can convey around five bikes and they can be carried without a reservation on off-peak services. I believe that you can not take your bike on in the morning rush hour though. Larger buggies and wheelchairs are also confin
ed to the guards carriage in the old trains but in the new trains it is possible to travel in the end of a specially designed carriage.
Finally a quick comment on the toilets, these are often clean and will have toilet paper as a general rule and I tend to have no problems with them (but then I don't have to sit on them). The major problems with them tends to be that they run out of water sometimes and hence can not be flushed – strangely the basins always seem to run out of water first – and the other is on the older train it is far to frequent that the bolt will not work – its embarrassing when you hit someone with the door. Also on the new trains there is a disabled toilet on board with a baby change surface (when its not been snapped off the wall).
It should also be noted that all the long distance trains carry a smoking compartment of some description. The smoking section are the worst bit of the train due to the stale smell and a floor littered with ash and fag butts. It is though still surprising that its often the easiest place to get a seat, since it does make up such a small portion of the train.
South West Trains website at www. swtrains.co.uk actually has some useful features as well as all the things you'd expect from a corporate website. From here you can download any of the pocket timetables that SWT produces in PDF format, whilst the feature itself can be very useful the menu access system that is used to access the them is not the best as it prevents an easy overview of all the timetables available. The most useful feature for me has been the real time train running information, this has been changed slightly since I last used it as it now only shows trains that are running over 15 minutes late and those that are cancelled. I found this feature extremely useful as on occasion it has allowed me get an earlier delayed train rather than waiting for the next one.
ilst the site itself does not have a route planner of its own it does have a prominent link to the trainline website that allows you fill your journey details in without having to first leave the website. I haven't actually used this facility as it hasn't always been there and I got used to using the railtrack website to do this (then it wouldn't surprise me if the trainline one was using exactly the same method). A thing that I'd really like to see is fare information for standard cheap day returns at least, as currently the only fares that are detailed on the website are those which are on special offers.
THE PROBLEMS I've experienced:
I have to say that it seems that lateness is can quite often tend to be the rule rather than the exception, this normally seems to be due to a points/signal failure outside Portsmouth harbour/ Waterloo station. On the Portsmouth-Waterloo line though trains that are more than fifteen minutes late are quite rare, however when they do happen they tend to occur in gluts and it feels like everyday that you train is hazardously late or been cancelled.
In the flooding last year I have to say that the company coped extremely well. Around that time it was a regular occurrence to be ushered onto coached for part of the journey. This was well organised with it being rare that you had to wait for a coach to arrive for too long and then staff tried to point everyone onto the correct coach dependent on the destination. I never ended up on the wrong coach but got shifted around sometimes. When you travelled at a particularly busy time there could sometimes with a couple of people standing up but that was mercifully rare.
One time when the rain was truly horrendous I went to catch the train at peak time, this was on one of the first days they had to use coaches. This journey was looooooooong, normally it would take me an hour and an half to get home including the walking at either end but o
n this occasion it took me over five hours. It took well over an hour just to get onto a coach at Guildford station, this then took another forty-five minutes to get around 300 yards from the station due to traffic. The coach was only taking passengers one station down the track but this part took close to three hours. At Farncombe they were operating a shuttle service to Haslemere, this left a large amount of people trying to stay under the shelter on the station. We waited for quite sometime, whilst we were given little information you felt that the staff were giving you all they had. At Haslemere most people changed to yet another train that then proceeded to sit in the station for a long while, however once moving the rest of journey went smoothly.
Whilst you'd thought all this would be enough to put me off train travel, it didn't as it was a difficult time for the companies staff and it was not the SWT's fault that the line flooded. Its also amazing how friendly a lot of people become when your herded onto coaches, most people didn't seem to annoyed (you could spot the ones that were) and just were resigned to it.
I have had one major grievance with the company. Anyway rather than type out about it again here is the letter I sent to South West Trains about it (with edits):
I recently enjoyed a night out with friends in Portsmouth.
Anyhow when the night was getting on so I left my friends (who were planning on going onto a nightclub) to return to the train station in order to catch the last train service back to Guildford. At that time of night at Fratton station they do not have any kind of announcements either PA or the destination screens, but I knew which time the train I required left approximately 2340. I got on the appropriate train and journeyed as far as Havant.
This is where my journey started to go awry. The train sat at Havant station for quite some
time, however I didn't think much of this as I've been on several trains which have done this due to signal failures. Eventually the train started moving again only to stop a couple of hundred yards down the track, after waiting there for a little while I started to become quite concerned, so I started to try and locate a SWT employee. Well the driver of the train came through and informed me that I should of alighted at Havant as there were engineering works further up the track. Now whilst I'd earlier seen an employee going through the train this individual didn't say anything to me. The train driver then contacted the signalman and arranged to drop me at Havant on the way back through.
By this time though the Bus replacement service had already left and hence left me stranded at Havant. I tried next to contact the company via the help point located on the station, unfortunately the man on the other end took some details and informed me that he couldn't help and hung up. As I did not have the money to pay for a taxi (in fact I had seven pounds), I had little choice but to make arrangements to stay in Havant overnight.
This incident has somewhat coloured my opinion of SWT services, which until this point had been good. However procedures on the night were not adequate to ensure that I knew that the train terminated at Havant, with no signs at Fratton station. Before when I've travelled on SWT (usually in the other direction) on the last train it has been clear that the train will terminate at a particular station in the event of engineering works, just because the northward train proves less popular than the southbound does not mean that the train company should get lax on informing its passengers.
I did wait sometime before I wrote this letter as if I'd written to soon it would have probably been borderline abusive. By superb good fortune they just happened to strand me where my par
ents live, and by good luck I had my door key on me (good thing to since they were on holiday).
Around half a month later I received a letter from SWT which contained a letter apologising and saying that they've taken action to ensure a similar incident won't happen in future, Also they enclosed five pounds of vouchers for rail travel, although this did not cover the £6.15 train fare home the next day I was happy that they apologised.
The thing is with train services you people tend to use them because there is no alternative or the alternative is less convient. However if your going travel on the Portsmouth-Waterloo line I recommend you try and do it off-peak since the service is a lot better. I can't really comment much on the other services they run but I'd assume that journeys of a similar length also have similar service. Probably the large problem area of SWT is the suburban services they run since these seem to get cancelled with an alarming frequency according to the boards (no driver available often being the reason). But the longer distance services generally do seem to run unless there's been an engineering failure or an accident.
Congratulations you have now reached the end of this opinion, apologises for making it so long but I felt I should try to be as comprehensive as possible.
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