It’s the uncertainty, not the delay, that gets you in the end

22nd September, 2022

I first began to conceive of this column three and a half hours before typing these words, as I stood with my wife and children in an impossibly long queue for the Eurostar, snaking across Gare du Nord in 35C heat. The problem was not the delay, but the discomfort, the anxiety and the uncertainty. It was impossible to read or even think because the queue moved and bunched; it was dammed and redirected at unpredictable points for unknown reasons. There was nearly a nasty accident as an escalator pumped people into a space that was already crowded.

It was not the most delayed I’ve ever been, not by a long way. Thanks to an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano, I was once five days late for my wife’s birthday. But the Eurostar experience somehow packed a season of stress into a few hours.

It was a fitting climax to a less-than-smooth attempt to tour the sights of Europe by train. Our train from Garmisch-Partenkirchen to Innsbruck was replaced by two bus journeys. The train from Innsbruck to Verona was late and, despite booking months ago, we weren’t given seat reservations. We spent an hour in a 40C waiting room at Verona, watching as our train to Milan was repeatedly postponed: just another 15 minutes, the departure board promised, over and over again. And the journey from Milan to Paris was threatened by a cancelled connection, giving us a couple of hours to fret over whether or not we’d be allowed on the later train. I love the idea of rail travel, but reality sometimes disappoints.

The curious thing is that, when we were actually travelling, everything was a pleasure. Even a bus replacement is not too shabby when you’re driving through the Alps. Although we spent an inordinate amount of time trying and failing to confirm seat reservations, we rarely had any trouble actually getting the seats themselves. The problem, in essence, was not the travelling; it was the queueing and the waiting and, more than anything, the anxiously never knowing.

This is true not just for holiday travel but for le train-train quotidien (even “daily routine” sounds cool in French). A famous study by Daniel Kahneman and the late Alan Krueger found that one of the least pleasant parts of anyone’s day was the morning commute, with the evening commute not far behind.

The reason may be that the commute is not only unpleasant, but fraught enough that one could never quite get used to it. Commuters cannot afford complacency; they must always keep one eye on the grimness of their journey, lest it become grimmer.

None of this would be news to Pete Dyson and Rory Sutherland, the authors of a delightful book called Transport for Humans. They cite various studies to back up some obvious-yet-overlooked ideas. For example, time flies when you are travelling but drags when you are waiting (subjectively, a minute of waiting feels like three minutes of travel). One Dutch study found that journeys on clean trains feel about 20 per cent briefer. I have nothing against faster trains, but running clean trains is cheaper and we could start doing it tomorrow.

Dyson and Sutherland argue that transport providers should attend to the neglected task of explaining what is happening and reassuring people. How long is the queue? How late is the train? If I miss this train, what happens then?

If Eurostar had said, “Sorry, you’ll have to queue for a couple of hours, and you’ll get to London two or three hours late, but we do promise to get you on a train tonight,” the time spent queueing would have been easier to bear. Instead, we were told why there had been some disruption, but nothing about the implications for us as travellers, so we had no idea what to expect or what to do.

I asked Eurostar for an interview to discuss why it seemed so hard for transport providers to provide information to passengers, but nobody could be made available to answer my questions. At least they are consistent.

Travellers find explanations useful even when there is no delay. It is easy to take some guesswork out of travelling by providing large clocks, having departure boards display countdowns or simply telling people which direction the train is coming from.

There is also the question of what to provide passengers with while they wait at the station. Clean seats, tables, perhaps even a power socket: a little of this sort of thing goes a long way. No doubt space in older stations is at a premium, but it would be helpful if some small fraction of the budget and attention devoted to high-speed rail links was diverted to relaxing and productive waiting rooms.

As I draft this conclusion, it’s four hours after we arrived at Gare du Nord, and two and a half hours after we were due to have left. I’m still waiting, but I’m on a stationary train. I have (fitful) air conditioning, a comfortable seat, and power and a table for my laptop. As a result, my mood has hugely improved. It turns out there is more to the art of travel than actually moving.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 26 August 2022.

The paperback of The Data Detective was published on 1 February in the US and Canada. Title elsewhere: How To Make The World Add Up.

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