Life

Coronavirus Killed the Daily Commute – Thank God

When I got laid off thanks to coronavirus, the one upside was never having to get a commuter train again. I'm not the only one who feels this way.
August 24, 2020, 3:04pm
Coronavirus has meant the death of the commute in the UK.
The writer at the station that ruined his life.

Whenever I watch a train pull in, I can tell just from looking exactly what kind of fresh hell is coming with it. I can smell if it’s “short-formed”, taste how overcrowded it is. I know exactly which doorway the dick with a suitcase will be blocking. This is not a skill you get overnight, or even after a couple of years. I have spent 13 years of my life commuting every day – I’ve calculated that’s 408 full days spent getting to work and back – which is, on reflection, completely insane. I have unwittingly become the Michael Jordan of the season ticket. You cannot out-commute me.

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But it’s not a good super-power. I hated every moment of those 13 years of travelling. My Twitter and Facebook feeds were once a butcher’s slab of violent invective against the state of British public transport, filled daily with boiling yet impotent rage. My mates obviously found it hilarious; for myself, it was like a cruel joke, the butt of which was me.

In return for my anger, commuting hated me back. The inconvenience of being either really late or really early paled next to the stress, depression, anxiety and guilt it brought on. The British commuter always feels stuck, like gravity is always pulling them back to their platform. After the first couple of years, if it was a weekend or a rare holiday, all I could think about was how, if I blinked, next thing I knew I’d be back at Waterloo.

COVID-19 has, of course, changed all this. With almost half of working Brits reporting that they were working from home in June and many people still doing so until 2021, Department for Transport figures for July show railway use at less than a quarter of what it was when lockdown began in March.

It was back in March that I travelled to my office for the last time. Since then, COVID has cost me my job, and while I went through the usual emotional run that comes with redundancy – panic, loss, worry, feeling like a failure – I was also filled with a surge of… overriding contentment! That 13-year sentence (which, admittedly, I gave myself) is finally over and I’ve got something of a life back. And I’m not the only one who’s delighted to find themselves in this situation.

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“In the leafy suburbs of Hampton, we were regularly used to having our trains cancelled on the reg,” explains charity worker James from Middlesex. “But a few summers ago they decided to install a new pump system at the station after ours at Fulwell, a place that is prone to flooding. The train company reluctantly decided to install a multi-million pound state of the art pumping system. This meant two weeks of no trains. First day back, it flooded and the entire line was shut all day. You get this sort of incompetence all the time.”

A consistently bad service is just the plate upon which commuting’s horror is served. I know what it’s like to lift up a discarded newspaper from a seat and find a sloppy, wet puddle of human shit underneath it. I’ve observed the very worst of drunk office twats, unable to take as much drink as they thought, swaying in their seat like an infant in a high chair, barfing a station Whopper onto their tie and then falling asleep in their own multicoloured detritus. I’ve been on the only train leaving London during a spectacular network cock-up, so packed it’s 10-deep on the platform, next to a woman having a panic attack.

The death of the commute in the UK, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic

Photo by the author.

This death of the commute means the death of commuters, who are all – including yourself – awful. It comes with the territory. The Other Commuter is an avatar of everything that can be hated about a human being: a gormless, charmless, clumsy chump. The Other Commuter has never chewed with their mouth closed, never not taken a phone call in a quiet carriage. The Other Commuter doesn’t know how to sit on a seat without also sitting on their neighbour and making sure they can feel how weirdly hot their shirt is.

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Usually, the levels of silent irritation at other people daring to have a respiratory system balance each other out, leaving a salty edge to the air. But, oh, when it does kick off, it’s magnificent. Remember that story from last year about two women getting into a barney over eating a Tupperware full of boiled eggs at 6 AM? Non-long haul commuters won’t understand the feeling that will have warmed that carriage, a mix of deep catharsis and holy euphoria.

Do it for long enough, and commuting can wear you down to a nub. Your life becomes a timetabled grid in your head of how long you can do anything before you have to leave, which is never long enough. You have only the most basic control over your movements. I felt constantly stuck in purgatory, spending nowhere near as much time with my wife as I should have. It made me tell myself I was a skiver on a daily basis for my 6 PM dash out of work. You’re a “lazy” employee, a “terrible” friend for leaving your mates at the pub after an hour, and then a careless partner for even staying on at the pub for an hour (which translates to getting home two hours later than usual).

“Up until the pandemic I had been getting up at five most mornings,” says Will, a school friend from my town, Farnborough, a seven-year veteran of the railway. Home working has thrown into focus for him just how damaging commuting can be. “How much the commute of the god-awful South Western mainline was hurting me was obvious when I caught mild COVID and was off work sick for pretty much 10 weeks. Even though I was still sick when I started working again from home, I felt physically and mentally better than I did when I was in good health and commuting.”

The fact that the railways have announced a fare increase starting January 2021, despite the pandemic slashing incomes, highlights what a terrible lifestyle it is. Without commuting, I feel better than I have in years. My head doesn’t feel like it’s on fire from stress, and I don’t feel like I’m constantly hurriedly cramming my life into small pockets between journeys. And whatever happens post-pandemic, for many, the great British commute has shown just how farcical and meaningless it has been for years.

“I have colleagues who are saying that if work tries to make us go back to the way things were they’ll hand in their notice, and I feel the same,” Will told me the other day. “Fuck getting on a train again.”

@Nick_Ruskell