Meeting Martin: Rail fares leave me green in the face

Being ‘Green’ is The Thing these days and there is scarcely a fragment of life that can’t escape Al Gore’s recycled tentacles. The conference and meetings industry is no different, with a plethora of Green credentials available to almost all quarters of the industry, sometimes in exchange for some money. Marvelous.

Today conference and event organisers are even including their Greenliness on all their bumf. From the website to the ‘thank you’ card, it’s a blizzard of sustainability and solar panels.

There are many ways in which an event can be more environmentally friendly: from not using paper at any point under any circumstances, and from insisting that the venue has solar panels installed immediately, even when it is raining. However, these things can sometimes be quite difficult to get around. When budgets are tight and the clock is ticking, a printed ID card and reels of paper with delegate names just has to do, and getting the event over the finish line becomes the priority – at whatever cost.

No one has ever cancelled an event because they couldn’t fulfil their Green obligations.

Of course, one surefire way to gloss over these missed Green nuances is to make bold the point of ensuring your delegates travel to and from the event via public transport. This, we are told, ‘cuts emissions’. Nowhere in the world is this more complex than in Her Majesty’s own United Kingdom.

Getting people to ‘take the train’, ‘catch the bus’ or, worst of all, ‘cycle’ to your event is nothing more than a veneer. The very notion of someone driving their car, for which they have paid a lot of money, fills many organisers with a reviled disgust. Parking, under no circumstances, must be available, and if it is, is must cost more than the car itself.

Why is this so? On paper the car is the most convenient way of travelling around. You can have the radio on and the air-con set just so, and you can, in theory, get from door-to-door at the turn of a key. Easy.

But no. To attend your next event you have been told, sternly, that you must use public transport. There is no denying that pollution is an issue, but petrol cars of the last decade are the best they have ever been emissionly speaking. But still, they’re off the menu. So what of the bus? Well, the diesel ones are now chariots of Satan and hybrids are too expensive. Cycling, then? In a suit, on your way to a conference, uphill, in the rain? Yeah, right.

This leaves us with the faithful train. In the old days catching the train was simple. You turned up at a train station, paid the station master 2/6D for a Red Rover, and nationalised rail would, eventually, get you to your destination.

At the onset of privatisation in the nineties, though, everything started to get a bit murkier – more so when the internet came about.

First of all the different rail franchises all but refuse to acknowledge each other’s existence. They say because they are competing they won’t show a full national network map on their websites, at their stations, or on their trains. How on earth are they competing? If I need to travel to Weymouth then I really do require South West Trains. What good is the Great North Eastern Railway service to Edinburgh? They interconnect, but they don’t want you to know about it.

Then there’s the ticketing. Unfortunately, the word ‘crisis’ has been hijacked in recent years and has lost the urgency of its meaning. But rail tickets really are a cause for crisis.

I shall now offer you some free advice: don’t book your rail tickets online in advance. It’s a gamble, but I bet it won’t make a jot of difference to buying them at the station on the day.

The other week I was headed for the south coast and, after looking at rail fares online made the decision that I was too lazy to book and would try my luck on the day. As there is no ticket machine at my local station in Gomshall, I was tasked with buying my ticket from the guard on the train. This is a better way to do it, as he spent five minutes explaining how it was all hopeless. He printed me the cheapest return to Brighton, and it was about 40% cheaper than the online prices advertised only the day before.

Have you ever bothered to see how many different ticket options there are for any one journey? It’s a veritable nightmare. You arrive at the station and wait for about a month in the queue for the ticket machine. You type in your destination and whether or not you ever want to come home and are confronted with 73 options all ranging from about £9.20 to mortgage territory.

What in the name of the Father is ‘Super Off-Peak’?

This brings us on to peak times themselves. Why are peak time tickets more expensive? And, more so, why is the actual time of the peak never specified? Is it between 7am and 9.01am? These days people finish work at all hours so how is it defined?

Returning to why are peak times more expensive. To my mind, a peak train is far busier (read: packed to bulging) and there is little-to-no hope of getting a seat. Why should this more uncomfortable service cost me more than it does for some day-tripper who has caught the same Guildford to Waterloo service but at 10.04am? For less, presumably with their ‘Super Off-Peak’ ticket, they get a carriage to themselves, which includes a seat and a fairly cosy ride. Why am I paying more for being buried in someone’s fishy armpit?

Then we come to London. London wasn’t designed, it just sort of happened. The Romans got the ball rolling, and then the Tudors added a few more streets before the Victorians got cracking. Back in the middle of the 19th Century, Britain was miles ahead of the world, and when it came to railways we were quite literally world leaders. However, all the mainline railway networks head into (or out of) London, getting across the city simply can’t be done. Living in the south, if I want to get to Birmingham, I have to get off at Waterloo, or Vauxhall, or by any other of the 16 ways available, jump on the Victoria Line, or the Northern Line, or the Piccadilly Line, or the Overground. Then, once at Euston, I have forgotten where I’m going. You can’t go over London (Thameslink doesn’t count because it doesn’t go anywhere important).

The problem here is that each of these routes will cost a few pence in difference, but there’s no way of knowing which is best. Worse, if you’re travelling for business and your company is to reimburse you for the travel, there’s no way of providing a receipt if you’ve tapped in and out with your contactless or Oyster card. So you have to buy a Travel Card, which means queuing up at the ticket machine again and trying to fathom what a ‘Super Off-Peak’ is.

So a message, then, to organisers who insist that in the name of Greenliness its delegates must take public transport to your event: we will. But you’re paying.

Martin Fullard

Martin Fullard: journalist, presenter, producer. Martin is the Deputy Editor at Conference News and Conference & Meetings World magazines. He leads the digital channels on Mash Media’s Conference Division as well as heading up Mash TV. He is formerly a web editor at a national newspaper in the Middle East and motoring journalist.

Martin Fullard


Martin Fullard

Martin Fullard: journalist, presenter, producer. Martin is the Deputy Editor at Conference News and Conference & Meetings World magazines. He leads the digital channels on Mash Media’s Conference Division as well as heading up Mash TV. He is formerly a web editor at a national newspaper in the Middle East and motoring journalist.

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