London public transport blues

New Malden isn’t the best-connected of places when it comes to the London public transport system, although I speak as someone who was formerly spoiled, living within walking distance of East Croydon station with its every-few-minutes fast trains to four main London stations (Victoria, London Bridge, Blackfriars and Kings Cross - not counting the less frequent trains to Waterloo and Charing Cross) and fast trains to the airport and the coast as well. Here, we’ve got a suburban station with six trains an hour to just one - Waterloo - and no fast trains at all.

We don’t have any competition here: all the trains are run by the same operator, namely South West Trains. (Admittedly, the two companies operating through East Croydon are both actually brands of the same company, GoVia, which also owns the bus companies London General, London Central and Metrobus.) Now, SWT used to run fast trains out of Wimbledon as well as Surbiton, although they weren’t frequent. But apparently the fast Wimbledon trains were holding up their highly-paying customers in places like Portsmouth and Southampton by stopping on platforms 6 and 7 which is next to the fast track … so they were stopped last year.

But the service at New Malden is just not very good at all. Not just the trains, but the customer service is just abysmal. Yesterday I got to the station around 1.35pm, and found three or four people in front of me. The problem is, I just wanted to buy a one-day travelcard, and these people were buying some sort of season ticket. They took ages, and two trains came and went while I was waiting in this queue. There was another service hatch, which was closed despite there being another member of staff in the room. The ticket machine, although it supposedly takes banknotes, in practice nearly always rejects notes, so there’s no point in using it. The newsagents, which also sell travelcards, were shut. The permit to travel machine (basically you have to exchange the permit for a ticket at the first opportunity) was not in use because … one of the service hatches was working. What excuse for customer service is this?

And then there’s the bus connections, particularly the late-night ones. There’s a bus, the K1, which goes from near the station down towards Worcester Park and along the main A3 road (near which I live) to Tolworth. In the evenings, it leaves New Malden at a quarter to, and a quarter past, each hour. Mostly, however, it leaves just at the time a train gets in, leaving them to wait another half hour before the next arrives. On a Friday night, nobody wants to be hanging round New Malden, so they call a lift, or get a taxi, or make use of the other buses. It looks like an effort to make an excuse to kill off the service altogether (breaking connections is, as I was once told in Wales where a lot of rail lines were shut down in the 1950s in this way, an easy way to make a line look unprofitable because you want to close it anyway). I’m sure it’s not, but I’m sure the service looks like a money-loser when in fact it’s missing its most important source of passengers by leaving a couple of minutes too early!

The other periodic annoyance on SWT trains is beggars. You normally see them somewhere near Waterloo as that’s where most of the customers are. They always have the same story - that they just need a few more quid to get into a hostel for the night. They always have the same stubbly appearance and put on the same voice that makes them sound desperate. They occasionally have a dog, which always looks very well-groomed. There was a time (in the 1980s) when there were a lot of people out on the streets begging, which is something you don’t see much now, and we’ve not had any New York-style police crackdown on rough sleepers. I don’t have a problem giving the occasional bit of money to homeless people, but I’m just wondering if this story about having to pay what sounds like a lot of money to get into a hostel is true. I mean, £8 short? This sounds like a bed & breakfast, not a hostel. What is the real story about these hostels?

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