A Rogue Train Traveller's Guide to the UK rail system

JLink to: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four: Deconstructing 'C'est la vie' | Part Five: Our man from Japan | Part Six: A Rogue Train Traveller's Guide to the UK rail system

(Updated 10/1/00: Added a section about my train journey back from the Villiers Park course. Go to it now by clicking here)

This describes a bit about my experiences with the rail system on my Eclipse trip to Cornwall, if you were wondering what this had to do with the Space School Cornwall Eclipse trip.

It's been remarked that the United Kingdom once had the world's greatest railway network - and so we should, considering we did invent the damn thing. </nationalism>

Alas, of recent years, the whole thing has fallen apart. Trains rarely run on time. Platforms are degrading. TVs signalling departure times fail to operate. Computer systems crash. Trains crash. I crash. And worst of all, it's getting more expensive.

Consider my dilemma here. I have learnt that the cheapest ticket is a Supersaver ticket, bought using a Student Railcard (and that's still pretty expensive). Unfortunately, if you buy a Supersaver ticket, you:

a) Cannot reserve a seat and

b) Cannot travel on Fridays or Saturdays during July or August.

And so, consider the sticky situation I found myself in on a Saturday in August, with a Supersaver ticket, trying to catch a train from Cornwall (post-eclipse) back to Liverpool. Not a particularly enjoyable situation at all.

Even worse, during the eclipse, every single seat on every single train was reserved. Okay, it is a little silly, but that's the British rail system.

However, with my new-found skills obtained from my trip down to Cornwall (on a Friday in August, with a Supersaver ticket, pre-eclipse), I found that travelling back in consummate luxury was no problem at all.

How did I attain such a feat? How did I manage to outwit the wily ticket inspectors and still stay alive? Read and learn...

It's all in the mind

The most important concern you will have on getting on the train is to get a seat. After all, by loitering around in the inter-carriage area, you only attract attention to your illegal Supersaver ticket self. You need to get a seat, and quick, especially if you're not at the starting station of the train.

As the title says, it's all in the mind. It's to do with confidence. You have to look as if you have a perfect right to be on the train, and you have to look as if you really are looking for your 'reserved' seat.

You're on the train, and there aren't that many free seats. Even worse, all the free seats are reserved.

Don't panic!

Just mosey-on down the aisle, as cool as can be, and carefully study each reserved ticket thing at each of the free seats. You may think this is strange, because you're 'supposed' to have a 'reserved' seat. It isn't. It's all in the mind, remember? But I still hear you say - Why would an intelligent individual have to look at all the reserved ticket things when they're supposed to know what reserved seat they have?

Why indeed? But, ah, you're presuming that you're supposedly 'intelligent.' There are many ways to cure that. Here are the top ways of ensuring your chances of gaining a seat, and indeed surviving, on the train.

The Top Five ways of eliciting sympathy/gaining favours on the British rail system

Being a good looking girl. They say a good pair of (deleted) can get you anywhere in the world, and that certainly includes getting on a British train.

4. Being young. If you're sufficiently young looking (mid-teens), you stand a good chance of getting away with minor misdemeanors like sitting in a reserved seat. If you're young and cute looking, well, you may as well just go and sit in First Class.
3. Being able to turn on the waterworks. A crying person in distress always elicits sympathy. Whether it will be enough sympathy is another thing. If you're a six-foot rugby player, turning on the waterworks will probably get you a 1p discount on your ticket upgrade. If you're an attractive young woman, you're likely to get propositioned. By everyone in the carriage. In other words, use your judgement.
2. Being disabled. No, I'm not joking, and I'm not being nasty. If you happened to have broken your arm/leg/nail, then you stand a good chance of gaining the sympathy vote and you thus can justify looking at all the reserved tickets.

Being foreign. It's a commonly known fact that all 'for-ners' are stupid. The more foreign you look, the more stupid you are likely to be. Stupid probably isn't the word. Ignorant is. Being foreign on the British rail system holds many advantages, and anyone can be foreign, even you!

How? First, if you really are foreign, then no problem! If you don't know English, or speak it badly, great! The ticket inspector will have a hell of a time trying to explain to you why you shouldn't be on the train, and will eventually give up trying altogether within a few minutes.

If you only look slightly foreign (like me, i.e. an anglicised asian) then you can accentuate your foreign look by wearing bad foreign clothes. This is easier for some than it is for others. Try wearing obviously foreign clothes - e.g., a T-shirt with Chinese writing on, like I did. Wear a backpack using both shoulder strap - yes, it is so uncool, and to boot, it's healthy - but it makes you look French, and they're extremely foreign.

If you don't look foreign at all, what the hell? That shouldn't stop you! Pretend to be a dumb American, or Spanish. Remember those old language lessons you had at school? Put them to good use now! Wave your hands about a lot in that crazy Italian way.

Warning: Don't pretend to be French. The British hate the French. You will be thrown off the train, jailed, shot, hung, drawn and quartered within several seconds of sitting down.


Hold on a second. Why did we even want to check all the reserved seat ticket things in the first place?

Ah. Patience. The point of checking them all was to find out whether someone had missed the train and thus missed their seat. Don't understand? Let's say train X makes four stops, at A, B C and D. The seat is reserved from A to D. You get on the train at B. You find the seat, which says the person on it should have got on it at A. However, the person didn't, so you're within your rights to nick (cough), I mean, temporarily requisition it.

No, I'm serious. If the person who reserved the seat missed the train, well, you can take the seat. No problem.

Even better is when the reserved seat has already had its passenger. For example, the seat is reserved from A to B. You get on at C, so technically, the seat is free. No problems.

Case study: Cornwall

Let's examine what happened on my journey. I, upon embarking the train, did not espy any free unreserved seats. During my search down the aisle, I saw a seat that was free, but it was reserved for a stop later than the one I was at. Let's take an analogy. I was at A, and I'm going to D. The seat was reserved for C to D.

So I took the seat. After all, it's better than standing up, and the person might never even turn up in the first place. While I was busy emitting an aura of intense nonchalence with a hint of gloating, there were literally dozens of people standing up in the inter-carriage section, because they hadn't got the stones to take a free reserved seat. What is the United Kingdom coming to, I don't know.

As it happened, due to my appalling grasp of Geography (hell, I got an A* in the subject and I thought Yorkshire was south of Liverpool), the seat I was in was actually reserved for a station after the one I'd be disembarking at, which was perfect. Thus, I am proud of my geographical ignorance.

The next incident didn't occur until the final leg of the journey, whereupon I was challenged by a ticket collector about the fact that I had a Supersaver ticket and was illegally travelling on Friday. Since I happened to be reading Scientific American I couldn't pull off the old 'I'm speaking Chinese, can't you see I'm foreign' routine, so I reverted to the tried and tested 'Er, well, what? Sorry?' confused routine.

Fortunately, I got away with just a admonishment about buying full-fare tickets the next time I travelled. Funnily enough, that was the third time I'd been told that within seven days.

The moral of the story

So, the point is, even if you are a penniless law-abiding student (well, law abiding to the fact that you're travelling with a Supersaver on a Saturday) you can get a seat on a crowded train where all the seats are reserved, as long as you:

a) Have the stones

b) Are extremely nonchalent

c) Are young/foreign/disabled/crying/pretending to be foreign/female/young and female

Simple enough, eh?

<serious> There is nothing illegal or even dishonest (I think) with anything described here, unless you are sitting in a reserved seat and refuse to get out when the reserver of the seat comes along and tries to kick you out. Sitting in a reserved seat which is free for any number of reasons helps everyone.

However, you should have a bit of extra cash on you (nothing serious, just £5 - 10) in case they charge you for just having a Supersaver. </serious>

And now you too can frolic across the United Kingdom, sitting down, no less, just with your wits and a Supersaver ticket!



After my Villiers Park Biology course, I once again faced the terrors of the British Rail System. Once again, our hero Adrian Hon found himself on a train bound for infinity and beyond, which he wasn't actually supposed to be on. What happened? Click here


Back to Part 5, 'Our man from Japan'