London Commuting; Already badly broken and doesn’t seem to be getting any better

My first experience of Commuting into London was nearly two decades ago. It wasn’t something I’ve ever particularly enjoyed (unlike some who find it’s a great reading opportunity), but it generally did the job of getting me from where I’d chosen to live to where I’d chosen to work. After about 5 years I left that behind and setup a company and, over the next 9-ish years I was free from it.

A little over two and a half years ago I started working at Facebook and needed to commute again. Over the time I was there I found that, if anything, commuting to London had gone significant ly down-hill as an experience. The train operating companies here have tried to redefine the word “late”; if a train leaves <5 minutes after the advertised time it is not late, but if you turn up two or three minutes after the advertised time, well, you’ll find they have a different, more commonly accepted, definition of late for you.

Today I start at Deliveroo, this is my first commute into London for two and a half months and the train I planned to catch is cancelled, the next one going in that Direction is two-thirds of it’s maximum length (8 cars instead of 12), and the train after that is also cancelled. I got on the short train and, with 2 stops and 50 minutes before it reaches London the aisle s are already starting to fill up with people who can’t get seats, and, what concerns me most, is that people consider this in-line with expectations.

In the UK we’ve had train strikes which have been intermittent over the last year, we’ve had prominent politicians raise the issue and get very little changed, so the future doesn’t seem bright.

So if you’re setting up your business in London you need to think hard about your need for staff; will you need people from outside of the city? How will you come with their commuting stress? Is there a reason why you’re asking them to go through it every day? Should you be considering relocating outside of London, or increasing partially or fully remote working?

Personally I’m lucky; Facebook allowed me to work a day each week from home, I’m also in a position where I can walk away if the commute gets too bad, but for many people the commute is an expectation their employers are making of them without possibly understanding the stress it can cause, and being stressed before you even sit at you’re desk isn’t a recepie for success.

[Update; As I posted this my train came to a halt; it’s now in a 5 miles, 9 train queue caused by a single passenger being taken I’ll on a train in London]

[Update 2; The train I caught finally arrived in a London station 35 minutes late. It wasn’t the station I wanted to be at, but, because I’ve experienced UK trains a fair amount over the last few times, it wasn’t late enough to overrun the 1hr time buffer I now add to journeys]

2 thoughts on “London Commuting; Already badly broken and doesn’t seem to be getting any better

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  1. Ugh. How long does your total commute take, on a good day? It sounds like it must be at least an hour. That’s a tough trip to make every day, although I know many people do.

    Are the trains run by private companies, or are they government-sponsored? You would imagine that private train operators would be more motivated to keep on schedule, and have enough train cars to meet demand. But maybe there’s insufficient competition. There are only so many trains you can fit on the available track, as your 9 train jam shows.

    Here in San Francisco the problems are similar. All the hot new tech companies want to be in downtown SF. The sole commuter rail option (CalTrain) looks about like your photo, with aisles jammed full of people. Many large tech companies operate fleets of private busses to shuttle their employees between the main office and outlying areas. But it’s still a mess.

    I’m sure these companies are aware of the commute challenges, but weigh the advantages of being in a hot downtown location as more important. And just as some people in outlying areas don’t want to commute downtown, some who live downtown don’t want to commute out. If you remember when we worked together here, I intentionally chose an office location that was not in downtown San Francisco. That proved to be a negative for many potential employees who strongly wanted to be in the city, and viewed any company in outlying areas as stale and boring.

    1. Best case for the commute is a little over an hour, at Facebook it was 1hr 15mins due to an additional underground journey.

      UK Trains are a strange setup; They’re operated by private companies, but they have contracts with the government which guarantee certain levels of income, but have penalties for lateness, so, in some cases, it’s more cost-efficient to cancel trains than to run them late to all the stations they’re supposed to go to (Sometimes the stations they’ll stop at will change right before they leave the station to allow them to “catch-up” to their schedule).

      The other unusual thing is that the train operating companies get monopolies over routes; So realistically competition only exists where two routes cross at a station and when that happens your choices tend to be a slow route from one company which operates a stopping service on a different track route to the other company which has the rights to operate the faster route.

      One of the issues with London is traffic; A rail journey into the center where almost all high tech jobs are will take about an hour, but doing it by car will take around twice as long, so shuttle busses aren’t a viable alternative.

      Personally I liked the office you chose; I used to get the shuttle van to the hotel next door and my commute was a walk. Facebook’s choice involved a fairly length Uber or CalTrain trip to a Palo Alto hotel then a daily shuttle ride into the office, and the few times I’ve been to the Google office in Mountain View it’s been a similar type of thing. Some people choose where they want to be and then what they want to do, it takes some time to realise the best job in the world can become pretty unattractive when there’s a rough daily commute involved.

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