It’s the uncertainty, not the delay, that gets you in the end

I began conceiving this column three and a half hours before typing these words, as I stood in an incredibly long queue for the Eurostar with my wife and children, weaving my way across the Gare du Nord in the 35C temperature. The problem wasn’t the delay, it was the uneasiness, the fear, and the uncertainty. It was impossible to read or even think as the snake moved and bunched; it was dammed and diverted at unpredictable locations for unknown reasons. There was almost a bad accident when an escalator pumped people into an already crowded space.

It wasn’t the biggest delay I’ve ever had, not by a long shot. Thanks to an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano, I was once five days late for my wife’s birthday. But the Eurostar experience somehow packed a stressful season into a few hours.

It was a fitting culmination of a less-smooth attempt at touring the sights of Europe by train. Our train from Garmisch-Partenkirchen to Innsbruck was replaced by two bus trips. The train from Innsbruck to Verona was late and we didn’t get a seat reservation despite booking months ago. We spent an hour in a 40°C waiting room in Verona and watched our train to Milan being pushed back again and again: only 15 minutes left, the departure board promised, over and over again. And the journey from Milan to Paris was threatened by a failed service, giving us a few hours to fret over whether or not we were allowed to board the later train. I love the idea of ​​train travel, but the reality sometimes disappoints.

The strange thing is that when we actually went, everything was a pleasure. A bus replacement is not neglected when driving through the Alps. While we spent an inordinate amount of time confirming seat reservations, we rarely had trouble getting the seats ourselves. The problem wasn’t essentially travel; it was the queuing and waiting and above all the anxious never-knowing.

This applies not only to holiday trips, but also to le train-train quotidien (also “daily routine” sounds cool in French). A famous study by Daniel Kahneman and the late Alan Krueger found that the morning commute was one of the most uncomfortable parts of the day, with the evening commute not far behind.

This may be due to the fact that commuting is not only uncomfortable, but also so stressful that one could never fully get used to it. Commuters cannot afford complacency; They must always keep in mind the gloom of their journey, lest it grow even darker.

None of this would be new to Pete Dyson and Rory Sutherland, authors of a delightful book called Transport for Humans. They cite various studies to support some obvious but overlooked ideas. For example, time flies when you travel, but it stretches when you wait (subjectively, one minute of waiting feels like three minutes of travel). A Dutch study found that journeys on clean trains feel about 20 percent shorter. I have nothing against faster trains, but running clean trains is cheaper and we could start tomorrow.

Dyson and Sutherland argue that transport providers should address the neglected task of explaining what is happening and reassuring people. how long is the queue What time is the train? If I miss this train, what happens then?

If Eurostar had said, “Sorry you have to queue for a couple of hours and you’re two or three hours late for London, but we promise to get you on a train tonight” would be the time you’re queuing would have been easier to bear. Instead we were told why there was disruption but nothing about the implications for us as travelers leaving us with no idea what to expect or what to do.

I asked Eurostar for an interview to discuss why the transport providers found it so difficult to provide information to passengers, but no one could be made available to answer my questions. At least they are consistent.

Travelers find explanations useful even when there is no delay. It’s easy to take the guesswork out of traveling by providing large clocks, displaying departure boards with countdowns, or simply telling people which direction the train is coming from.

The question also arises as to what should be made available to passengers while they are waiting at the station. Clean seats, tables, maybe even a power socket: a little of that is enough. Undoubtedly, space is at a premium in older stations, but it would help if a small portion of the budget and attention devoted to high-speed rail could be diverted to relaxing and productive waiting rooms.

As I write this conclusion, it is four hours after we arrived at Gare du Nord and two and a half hours after we left. I’m still waiting, but I’m sitting in a stationary train. I have (uneasy) air conditioning, a comfortable seat and electricity and a table for my laptop. This improved my mood enormously. It turns out there’s more to the art of travel than actually moving.

Written and first published in Financial Times on August 26, 2022.

The Data Detective paperback was released February 1 in the US and Canada. Title elsewhere: How To Make The World Add Up.

I have set up a storefront on Bookshop in the United States and the United Kingdom. Links to Bookshop and Amazon may generate referral fees.