Uncertainty, not delay, is what gets you in the end

I began visualizing this column three and a half hours before I wrote these words, as I stood with my wife and children in an impossibly long line for the Eurostar, climbing through the Gare du Nord in the 35-degree heat. The problem was not in the delay, but in the annoyance, anxiety, and uncertainty. It was impossible to read or even think because the queue was moving and gathering; It was blocked and redirected at unexpected points for unknown reasons. There was almost a horrific accident where an escalator pumped people into a place that was already crowded.

It wasn’t too late for me, not too long. Thanks to the unpredictable Icelandic volcano, I was five days late for my wife’s birthday. But the Eurostar experience somehow packed a season of tension into a few hours.

It was a fitting climax for a not so smooth attempt to tour the sights of Europe by train. Our train from Garmisch-Partenkirchen to Innsbruck has been replaced by two bus journeys. The train from Innsbruck to Verona was late, and despite booking months in advance, we were not given seat reservations. We spent an hour in a 40°C waiting room in Verona, watching our delayed train to Milan over and over: just another 15 minutes, as the departure board promised us, over and over again. The flight from Milan to Paris was jeopardized by the connection cancellation, which gave us a few hours to worry about whether or not we would be allowed to board the next train. I love the idea of ​​traveling by train, but reality disappoints sometimes.

The strange thing is that when we were actually traveling, it was all so much fun. Even replacing a bus is not so bad when driving through the Alps. Although we spent a lot of time trying and failing to confirm a seat reservation, we rarely had any trouble getting the seats themselves. The problem, in essence, was not the travel; It was queuing and waiting, and more than anything else, the worry that never knew.

This is true not only for holidays but also daily grind (Even “daily routine” sounds great in French). A famous study by Daniel Kahneman and the late Alan Krueger found that one of the least enjoyable times of anyone’s day is the commute in the morning, with the evening flight not so much delayed.

The reason may be that the navigation is not only annoying, but fraught enough that one cannot fully get used to it. Travelers cannot afford to feel complacent; They should always watch the gloom of their journey, lest it become more bleak.

None of this would be news to Betty Dyson and Rory Sutherland, authors of a fun book called Transport for Humans. They cite various studies to support some seemingly overlooked ideas. For example, time flies when you travel but does flies when you wait (personally, a minute of waiting feels like three minutes of travel). One Dutch study found that journeys on clean trains appear to be 20 percent shorter. I have nothing for faster trains, but running clean trains is cheaper and we can start doing that tomorrow.

Dyson and Sutherland argue that transportation providers should take care of the neglected task of explaining what is happening and reassuring people. How long is the queue? How late is the train? If I miss that train, what happens next?

If the Eurostar had said, “Sorry, you’ll have to wait a few hours, and you’ll be in London two or three hours later, but we promise you’ll get on the train tonight,” the time in line would have been easier to bear. Instead, we were told why there was some disruption, but nothing about the implications for us as travelers, so we had no idea what to expect or what to do.

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

Travelers find the explanations helpful even when there are no delays. It’s easy to take some of the guesswork out of traveling by saving big hours, displaying departure boards for countdowns or simply telling people which direction the train is coming from.

There is also the question of what should be provided to passengers while they are waiting at the station. Clean seats, tables, maybe even a power socket: a little of this sort of thing goes a long way. The space in the old stations is no doubt expensive, but it would be worth it if a small part of the budget and attention devoted to the high-speed rail networks were converted into comfortable and productive waiting rooms.

As I formulate this conclusion, four hours passed after we arrived at Gare du Nord, and two and a half hours after we were due to leave. I’m still waiting, but I’m on a stationary train. I have a (proper) air conditioner, comfortable seat, power, and table for my laptop. As a result, my mood improved significantly. It turns out that the art of travel is more than just moving.

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

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