It’s the line where trains are often 300 passengers over capacity – and from next week fares will go up by £256 a year
It’s early on a chilly December morning and Georgina Jackson is wedged in the middle of a mob of bleary-eyed commuters at Reading station, who are scrambling to board the London-bound train.
Travellers dip and dive in search of that elusive prize – an empty seat. Their chances are slim, as the train is already bursting at the seams.
Welcome to Britain’s worst rail journey: the rush-hour morning train from Reading to London Paddington.
In 2010, the Department for Transport published a report detailing the 10 most crowded commuter trains – and nine were First Great Western services travelling through Reading to Paddington. The very worst was the 6.37am, packed with workers heading to trading desks in the City, where even on an average day the train was 306 passengers over capacity.
Passengers pay £4,260 a year for season tickets on the 31-minute journey – and from next week the fare jumps another 6% to £4,516 (the price includes onward travel on the tube network). Jackson, 25, would be happy if the £256 extra led to an improved service, but she’s not expecting much.
“I don’t ever get a seat,” says the advertising account manager, as a fellow passenger forces past her standing spot in the hallway to get to the toilet.
“I’m worried about when the rail fares go up because it already costs me a lot of money to get in. I don’t mind paying the money if I get a good service but everyday someone apologises for something else going wrong.”
Today Jackson is accompanied on the 8.02am service by her fiancé, Elliot Townsend, 26, who travels to London once a month for his work in education services. “I feel sorry for Georgina – it’s rubbish really,” he says. “They’ve got us over a barrel, we have no choice but to pay the increase in fares.”
One problem with the very early services is that the train company lays on just three carriages.
John Gale, 60, has been commuting on the 6.20am from Theale, about 10 minutes west of Reading, to London Paddington for the past 40 years, and currently pays £110 a week.
To say Gale, who works in construction and rises at 4.45am every day, is not happy about the fares hike would be an understatement.
“The service is getting worse and worse, it’s more crowded each year,” he says as the train pulls out in the darkness from Reading. “Sometimes you’ve just got a square foot to stand in, it’s horrible. There are also times you could stop for an hour at a time and have no idea what’s going on.”
As Gale makes this remark, ironically the train grinds to a halt. “See,” he grins. But as he starts to navigate his way past the sea of bodies to the front of the carriage to ask what’s happening, the train begins to move again.
Despite the expensive journey, Gale says he wouldn’t consider moving to London “even if someone paid me”. He’s not the only one, it seems. James French, who now lives in Reading, said he moved from east London after a neighbour was shot on the doorstep three doors from his house.
The 39-year-old, who works in higher education, has been commuting to Charing Cross via London Paddington since the summer, paying £409 a month.
“I don’t know how the train companies can justify the money they make,” he says, cramped against an old slam door, clutching a newspaper. “Where is all the money going? Travelling around London is relatively cheap but I get penalised because of having to commute from outside of London to come to work. It feels like they can charge what they like. The expression ‘daylight robbery’ comes to mind. If you look at first class it’s normally half empty.”
He’s right. As hundreds of passengers pile together on the cramped carriages, there are spare seats in first class. But they don’t come cheap. A first class season ticket from Reading to London Paddington costs £7,764 and next month will go up by £468.
As the crowds disperse from the platform at Paddington, a cleaner who works for First Great Western boards to prepare the train for its next departure.
Having only started the job two weeks ago, he says he’s heard a lot of complaints already. “If they don’t get a seat there’s not much I can say. I feel sorry for them and I understand people get pissed off. No one is going to be happy about fare rises either. I feel sorry for them – but what can you do?”
Mark Teale, 37, has been commuting from Theale to Paddington for 14 years and works at London Underground HQ.
“I’m fairly pragmatic about it all really – people all want to travel at the same time, it’s bound to be busy. I suppose the well-worn phrase ‘we’re all in it together’ comes to mind when it comes to fare rises.
“If I wasn’t going to be seeing improvements I’d be more upset, but we are. They’re apparently going to be adding a fourth carriage soon which should help ease the congestion.”
Charlotte Martin, an HR business partner, describes herself as a “seasoned traveller”, having commuted from Theale to London Paddington for the past 15 years.
“Your day is governed by the train you get already so I’m not happy about the fare rise.
“The lack of information when there’s problems is such a pain and every so often you get a real problem and you can be waiting for ages at a standstill. You can sometimes find out what’s happening on the internet quicker than on the actual train – that’s really irritating.”
Raj Joshi, 37, who works in the telecoms industry, lives in Reading and has been commuting to London Paddington for the past three months, but travelling to London for a decade.
“I’ve been at a platform when the train just whizzes by because it’s late and it’s full – you have to wait half an hour for the next one sometimes. That’s not really good enough if they’re asking us to pay more for our journey.”