How commuting on the Great Northern line has affected my mental health

PUBLISHED: 08:54 16 April 2019 | UPDATED: 08:54 16 April 2019

Hertfordshire commuter Hope Brotherton has been discussing how commuting has affected her mental health. Picture: Finn Loughman

Hertfordshire commuter Hope Brotherton has been discussing how commuting has affected her mental health. Picture: Finn Loughman

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Hertfordshire commuter Hope Brotherton has been reflecting how delays, cancellations and lengthier journey times on Great Northern rail services have increased levels of stress and anxiety for herself and others - to mark Stress Awareness Month.

Overcrowding at London's Kings Cross station last July. Picture: Jason FlynnOvercrowding at London's Kings Cross station last July. Picture: Jason Flynn

May 20, 2018, was the date chaos began for commuters across Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire who experienced unprecedented delays and cancellations due to a nationwide timetable change.

I was one such commuter, travelling from Royston. I would find myself disappointed by delay-after-delay, crestfallen by cancellations and overwhelmed by overcrowding. All too soon this journey exacerbated my levels of stress and anxiety.

According to Anxiety UK, one in 10 people will experience a 'disabling anxiety disorder' at some point in their life.

A common cause of anxiety is stress which for many, including myself, was intensified by an uncertain commute.

Commuters waiting in line for a replacement bus at Royston, a familiar sight last summer after the May 2018 timetable change. Picture: Tim HolmesCommuters waiting in line for a replacement bus at Royston, a familiar sight last summer after the May 2018 timetable change. Picture: Tim Holmes

I was stuck in a never-ending cycle of despair. Regularly, I would silently omit tears of frustration as another orange pixel would flash delayed across a vacant screen.

In a vain attempt to manage my soon-to-be delayed journey, I obsessively followed Great Northern and Thameslink on various social media channels.

However, none of this helped ease my concerns about arriving into work on time or being home for dinner at a reasonable hour.

Socialising with friends became impossible, too.

The scene at Hitchin railway station last May when fed up passengers staged a mutiny - standing in the door to stop the train leaving. Picture: Ben LeetThe scene at Hitchin railway station last May when fed up passengers staged a mutiny - standing in the door to stop the train leaving. Picture: Ben Leet

Fellow commuter Katie Perrymanford, a 43-year-old policy worker, concurs. “When you talk about emotional health, I certainly didn't feel like I could go out in the evenings and get back safely,” she told me.

I knew how she felt. I would often rearrange seeing friends if the trains looked remotely disordered by late afternoon.

Three months after the timetable change, services had resumed to normal.

But the issue of lengthy commutes has not gone away, and is one that can still be harmful for commuter mental health.

Hertfordshire commuter Hope Brotherton has been discussing how commuting has affected her mental health. Picture: Finn LoughmanHertfordshire commuter Hope Brotherton has been discussing how commuting has affected her mental health. Picture: Finn Loughman

A report from the Royal Society for Public Health, Health in a Hurry, states that the Department for Transport plans to introduce a 'health and wellbeing' specification for franchises to follow.

This initiative aims to safeguard commuter health by reducing the number of unhealthy snacks sold at stations, while encouraging operators to routinely publish passenger capacity information. The report also suggests that first-class carriages should be declassified during peak hours.

“We declassified first class for a period following last year's May timetable change to give passengers as much space as possible,” explains Roger Perkins, media relations manager for Govia Thameslink Railway.

Routinely, the rear first class section, of new Thameslink services, is also declassified. However, at present, across numerous operators, 155,000 London-bound commuters arrive standing during the morning rush every day. For many, getting a seat is not possible – as commuter Katie describes: “More important for me was getting a seat. I suffer with my back, so that was quite stressful.”

Overcrowding at London's Kings Cross station last July. Picture: Jason FlynnOvercrowding at London's Kings Cross station last July. Picture: Jason Flynn

An opinion poll conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health, revealed overcrowding to be the second-most detrimental factor facing commuters, with journey delays cited as the first. According to research in the international journal of Transportation Research, overcrowding interferes with journey predictability and perceived commuter control – which can impact on the levels of commuter stress.

Mr Perkins acknowledges how “stress can be caused by delays and crowding”, but expressed that there are teams of rail enforcement officers “who are always out and about and available to give help and support to passengers”.

Stephen Buckley – head of information at mental health charity Mind – encourages any commuter, regardless of their rail provider, to speak to their GP if stress becomes unmanageable and poor mental health lasts longer than two weeks.

He states: “Stress can affect us all in various ways, but there are signs to look out for: feeling irritated, finding it hard to sleep or struggling to concentrate. You may feel really upset and emotional, or feel like crying.”

Commuters waiting in line for a replacement bus at Royston, a familiar sight last summer after the May 2018 timetable change. Picture: Tim HolmesCommuters waiting in line for a replacement bus at Royston, a familiar sight last summer after the May 2018 timetable change. Picture: Tim Holmes

For the next timetable upgrade, GTR's Mr Perkins confirms that Royston commuters, for example, will have “2,000 extra seats on three brand new morning and evening peak services to and from St Pancras”. Other improvements will also take place for off-peak services.

In just over a month, commuters will know whether the events of last year will repeat themselves. For now, it's like Katie says, “they're already on the right track to improvement”, and so is my mental health.

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