Thursday, April 22 2004

One grey morning last November, I remembered why I gave up commuting when I arrived at Peterborough station intending to leave my car in the station car park overnight, and return from London the following day. It was 8.30 am, and the ‘Car Park Full’ signs were already out, leaving a few despairing motorists stabbing hopelessly at the buttons of the automated ticket machines.

I drove round to two secondary car parks, which were both chock-a-block, and on to a third, which allowed daily parking on payment of four £1 coins into the ticket machine. I did not have £4 in cash, and the station cash-point obviously doesn’t dish out coins, so I drove round the block to the Great Northern station hotel, where parking is normally available at the exorbitant rate of £10 per day.

This time the sign said ‘No Commuters – Hotel and Conference Guests Only’, so, with time marching on, I drove round the block again, and joined the long queue of Christmas shoppers waiting to get into the car parks of the nearby Queensgate shopping centre.

Half an hour later, no more than half a dozen cars had passed through the barrier. But I had had time to study the board displaying the centre’s parking charges – clearly framed with the intention of dissuading rogue railway users from doing precisely the sort of thing I had in mind.

The charges were 40p an hour for 4 hours, rising to £8 for a full day, with a further £15 payable (in addition to the daily parking charge) should the car be left overnight, or need to be released by security staff after the official closing time of 7pm. Swiftly calculating that my car parking would cost considerably more than my rail journey, I abandoned the whole expedition and drove home in disgust.

The scenario will be familiar not just to regular users of Great North Eastern Railway’s high-speed service from Peterborough to Kings Cross, but to rail commuters throughout southern England. In recent months, COUNTY LIFE has polled estate agents, train operating companies and rail passenger organisations, in a bid to establish the scale of the station car parking problem within London’s commuter catchment area. For problems there undoubtedly are.

Peterborough is not alone, for commuter stations with major parking problems include Basingstoke, Hants (London-Waterloo 45 mins). Here, according to David Chalstrey of Lane Fox: ‘Despite there being three substantial car parks at Basingstoke station, you will be hard pushed to find a space after the departure of the 6.30am and 7am trains to London. The smart City boys pre-book a numbered space, but there is currently a 4-year waiting list for the 125 reserved spaces, with a further 800 spaces in ‘pay and display’. After 8.30am, most people overflow into the Festival Place car park opposite the station’. Home buyers registering with Lane Fox frequently specify a house within walking distance of the station.

Of Reading, Berks (London-Paddington, 25 mins), Rupert Bradstock of Property Vision says, ‘Whilst Reading provides an excellent service to London with trains leaving every 15 mins, the rail station is located in the centre of town, and it can take up to 45 minutes just to get there. There is adequate parking, with a multi-storey car park next to the station, but even this becomes a bun-fight after 7.30 am’.

Newbury, Berks (London-Paddington 1hr 5mins), Mr Bradstock describes as ‘diabolical, with a very small car park (200 spaces) located right in the centre of town’. He also gives the ‘thumbs down’ to Winchester, Hants (London-Waterloo 1hr) where the station is ‘in the centre of town, with poor parking facilities’

Alexander Hunt of Cluttons commutes into central London each day from Sevenoaks, Kent (London-Victoria/Charing Cross 35 mins), which has a 5-6 year waiting list for reserved parking space, with car park operators considering a switch to ‘first come, first served’. To ensure that the surrounding roads do not become jammed with commuters’ cars, parking in streets round the station is banned until after 10 am.

According to Philip James of Lane Fox, ‘Houses within walking distance of the station are much sought after, and attract a premium from City commuters.’

Further down the line, Tunbridge Wells has ‘no parking facilities, and commuters need to find somewhere to park in town, or be able to walk to the station’.

On the Thameslink line, which crosses London from Bedford to Brighton, walking to the station is a major priority for prospective purchasers, who will pay ‘a huge premium for a property within a 10 minute walk of their nearest station’, says Tim Pearse of Lane Fox in Harpenden.

Harpenden station has two large car parks which operate on a ‘first come, first served’ basis, and Thameslink has recently reclaimed land leased to a local school as playing fields, to convert into further parking. But friction has arisen between residents of ‘The Poets’ – the roads around Harpenden station named after literary lions such as Shakespeare, Milton and Spencer – and commuters from out of town, who park their cars on their streets to avoid paying station parking fees of £400 per annum. The local council has decided to solve the problem by converting ‘the Poets’ to ‘residents only’ parking.

On the other hand, commuters from Guildford, Surrey, would no doubt be delighted to pay £400 a year for parking, given that they currently pay £1100 for a space in the station’s 571-space car park.

Commuters using the small country station at Pluckley, Kent, are equally parsimonious, for rather than pay £2 per day for the station car park, they tend to leave their cars along the lane leading to the station, making it extremely difficult for local motorists to get by during the day.

As a spokesman for Network Rail (the successor to Railtrack) was quick to point out, station car parking facilities are the responsibility of the train operating companies (TOCs) which run Britain’s stations – with the exception of the 17 metropolitan stations which it operates directly (10 London mainline stations, plus 9 others including Birmingham New St, Edinburgh Waverley, Gatwick Airport, Glasgow Central, Leeds, Liverpool Lime St and Manchester Piccadilly).

Much of the current shortfall in parking facilities results from the original break-up of British Rail, followed by the collapse of Railtrack, which led to great lumps of former British Rail land being sold off for retail or commercial development in town or city centres. The station car park at Kings Lynn, Norfolk, for example, was sold to the Morrison supermarket chain; the car park at Ely, Cambs to Tesco.

Post-Hatfield, Paddington and Potters Bar, train operating companies have been under enormous pressure to rebuild public confidence by improving standards of rail safety, efficiency and comfort. The list of performance targets displayed with such prominence at mainline railway stations makes no reference to station car parking facilities, or the need to improve them. And whereas the worst parking problems tend to occur at stations located in town and city centres, cash-strapped City councils are generally disinclined to spend taxpayers’ money improving station car parking facilities, thereby increasing the flow of traffic from surrounding towns and villages into already overcrowded city centres. As local officials in Peterborough were quick to observe, the additional parking capacity provided in the station’s three overflow car parks, ‘was taken up in a matter of days’.

Does this mean that the train operating companies have simply turned their backs on the problem, hoping that it will somehow go away? Fortunately, not. As everyone knows, it will take generations to sort out Britain’s creaking railway system, but at least some of the more dynamic train operators are trying to make a difference. Perhaps some of the £27 million promised by the Government to improve the rail network will find its way into providing better parking at Britain’s railway stations?

Stymied for the present at Peterborough, GNER recently announced the creation of 230 new long-stay parking spaces at Grantham, the next station up the line, bringing the total available to 630, compared with Peterborough’s total of 825. GNER’s charges, however, are among the highest in the country. Parking at Peterborough costs £5 a day, £70 a month and £540 for an annual season ticket, with a few reserved spaces at £750 p.a. Charges at Grantham are slightly lower: £4.50 a day, £63 a month, £485 a year, and £675 p.a. for a reserved space. According to the local office of Humberts estate agents, Grantham’s improved parking facilities have already stimulated demand for family houses in villages within 20-30 mins drive of the station.

The efficiency and reliability of the Chiltern Line – voted Network Carrier of the Year 2003 – has resulted in vastly increased demand for car parking at Bicester and Beaconsfield stations, as more and more people take to the trains. According to former commuter Julian Ash of Lane Fox: ‘Commuters prefer to pay around £4,000 for their season ticket, and £300 a year for parking, in order to be able to relax and work on the train, rather than sit in traffic jams in their cars.’

Demand for parking spaces at Bicester has been such that the car park has had to be enlarged quite substantially. It costs £3.50 a day to park but drivers who arrive after 7.30am, find it hard to secure a space. Those who arrive after 8am are generally forced to park (alongside 20 other cars) on the verge leading up to the station which, so far, is legal as the road is owned by the station. In order to reduce pressure on the car park, the Chiltern Line runs a pick-up bus service around local villages, and offers free parking for two drivers sharing a car under its ‘share-a-journey’ scheme.

The construction of a 21st century, multi-storey, car park at Beaconsfield station has turned out to be something of a mixed blessing, for the facilities are now so good that more and more people are using it and taking up all the extra space, laments Damian Gray of Knight Frank. There is also tremendous pressure on Princes Risborough’s 150 or so parking spaces, with commuters arriving after 6.30am hard pushed to find a space.

William Kirkland of Cluttons suggests Didcot, to the south, and Charlbury, to the north-west of Oxford, as sensible alternatives to Oxford’s rail station, ‘which does have a tiny car park which it is seldom used’. Didcot is a parkway station on the edge of town (London-Paddington, 45 mins) with ample parking facilities.

Charlbury station is becoming a victim of its own popularity, however, for with more and more people using it, the car is full to overflowing by 7 am, with drivers parking on verges further down the road. Haddenham, to the east of Oxford, is another parkway station with good parking facilities and City connection via London-Marylebone (journey time 55 mins).

Vandalism can be a problem at parkway stations which tend to be in the middle of nowhere and lack on-site security. Property Vision’s advises prospective users of such stations to have a ‘station car’ (an old Subaru or Golf) which the owner can happily leave in the car park for 24 or 48 hours, while his wife drives around in the Mercedes Estate’.

According to Alexander Hunt of Cluttons, ‘increased congestion at town and city centre stations is encouraging an increasing number of people commuters to move close to the lesser stations on the more direct lines to London. On the line from Paddington to Bristol and Exeter, for example, there are advantages in buying close to a smaller station such as Chippenham, rather than busier stations such as Swindon or Bath’.

People lucky enough to live in the few small village stations which have good parking facilities and frequent rail services to London will always try to keep the information to themselves, but good news travels fast. Micheldever, Hants, on the Basingstoke-Waterloo line, offers easy access to London (journey time 1 hr), as a result of which houses in and around the village command a 15-20% premium, says Fin Hughes of Cluttons.

Meanwhile, Edward Welton of Knight Frank nominates the picturesque station at Kemble, Glos (patronised by HRH Prince Charles) as ‘one of the best in the country, with its extensive parking, reasonable £1.30 a day charge, and a blessedly short walk to the trains’.

By contrast, John Husband of Humberts has buyers willing to pay 15-20% ‘over the odds’ to live within a 20-minute drive of the Gatwick Express terminal at Gatwick airport, where there are ample parking facilities and direct trains to Victoria leaving every 15 minutes at peak times. This may not be the cheapest commute in the South of England but, mile for mile, it is one of the quickest, and the least stressful.