Today I'm making my twice-yearly journey to Leeds, a 400-mile round trip into the heart of not-London. I'm lucky because Leeds is a great city to visit (well, it beats <insert name of hated town here>) and the shops are great and the weather's usually not bad either. And work are paying for me to sit on two trains for 2¼ hours each way, so I can spend most of the day catching up on some good books. Result.
I have to be in Leeds by half past ten, so I decided to consult the onlinetimetable to find out what time I'd have to leave London to get there. Useful thing, online timetables. Type in an arrival time and they can work backwards to tell you that you need to start your journey at dawn's crack, precisely. Going to Leeds is easy. Coming home is trickier. I'm afraid I don't know exactly when I'll be ready to come home, so I'd like to see a timetable that covers the entire afternoon please. Maybe I could even print it out to carry with me on my journey. But oh no, online timetables aren't that convenient. I've been forced to fill in boxes with the exact names of the two stations I'm travelling between, I've had to remember what today's date is, I've waited for ages while the software processes my enquiry, I've clicked on 'earlier times' and 'later times' to get a fuller picture, and now I finally know I need to catch a train home at 'five past something'. I could have seen that at a glance in a real timetable, but the powers that be don't tend to allow us to view real timetables any more.
Timetables are dumbing down. We used to be able to flick through leafy pages of arrivals and departures for weekdays and weekends, with every intermediate station listed and fifteen special symbols that meant 'only travels as far as Crewe on alternate Mondays'. Now timetables are processed, digested and simplified so that we're only allowed to see the bits they think our brains are capable of coping with. Train companies don't like us to have to 'struggle' with a big list of times, oh no. They'd rather we had only a shortlist of start and finish times for three trains maximum, because that way even stupid people can book train tickets. I know online timetable software is very clever and could never have existed even five years ago, but personally I don't need spoonfeeding. I'd rather scan the complete list of times and find the train I want to catch, not the train they think I want to catch.
It's much worse if you have to make a connection. Online timetables propose ridiculous journeys, with 'just to be on the safe side' half hour waits at stations where in real life you can dash between platforms in two minutes flat. The Underground's Route Planner is a case in point. Ask it for the quickest route from, say, Mansion House to St Paul's and it'll propose a 25-minute two-train journey, whereas the two stations are actually only a couple of minutes walking distance apart. And don't get me started on the new spider maps that have replaced geographically accurate maps at London's bus stops. The old maps were brilliant for locating precisely where you were and how to get to where you wanted to be, even if it involved a change of buses en route or even walking. Not any more. Now we're just shown the destinations of the buses that leave from the immediate vicinity and bad luck if we're trying to travel anywhere that isn't served. We're not all spatially incompetent timetable illiterates you know. Sorry, I must have been living in this city too long. What I need is a day out.