Monday, 29 February 2016

Trains and trains and trains

The Good - Flying Scotsman on King's Cross to York Rail Museum 
The Good - Chiltern Railways -fast, cheap and new rolling stock
The Bad and pricey- Virgin Trains
The Bad and dirty - Cross Country trains

The Ugly, old and slow Northern Trains
What an absurd system of railways we have in Britain. Complex, disjointed and diverse but not in a good way. My latest two day expedition getting from Scotland to London captured all that is wrong as well as some of the good things about the rail service we now have to endure.

The journey was from Edinburgh to Sheffield for a training event, then on to Banbury and finally to London.. Three journeys, four trains, four train operators with a set of advanced tickets bought online from Virgin trains that required me to make a trip to the nearest railway station to collect the tickets. We set off in plenty time to catch the train - two and a half hours for what is normally a one hour and a half hour journey by car and then express bus.

The motorway was clogged as a result of Scottish Water closing one lane of a dual carriageway into Edinburgh causing a 7 mile tailback onto the motorway. They were not even working on the carriageway but on the adjacent grass verge. It took over an hour to cover these 7 miles and my wife missed her flight to London by a couple of minutes. British Airways acknowledged the unexpected traffic delays and transferred her to the next flight at no cost. Transport Scotland need to excoriate Scottish Water for both the inappropriate timing and unnecessary extent of their road closure. According to the airport several hundred people missed their flights as well as thousands of commuters being delayed. Getting to Edinburgh and its airport from the west and north is a hazardous occupation nowadays and that will probably be further exacerbated when the new Forth Bridge opens.

Travelling on to Waverley station on the express bus I missed my train by fifteen minutes. Virgin trains charged me an additional £66 on top of my train specific ticket for travelling on the next Sheffield train. The train was quite devoid of passengers so it was a penalty for being a pay as you go customer, you know the way we always used to buy rail tickets. There was certainly no customer sympathy but Virgin trains have no positive reputation to protect, they are more akin to Ryanair than British Airways. The well worn carriages had been repainted in the garish Virgin train livery since they had taken over the franchise from the publicly owned East Coast trains. It was a pure marketing ploy and a great pity that they had not re-upholstered the seats or refitted the toilets instead. But passengers are now esteemed customers and a veritable cash cow.

The journey was on time and passing York, I saw the carriages that the restored Flying Scotsman steam locomotive had pulled from King's Cross to York in the morning. The steam locomotive had been taken into the rail museum along with the celebrities who could be seen sipping champagne on the museum balcony. It was noticeable that the Flying Scotsman had been repainted in its British Railways dark green livery to remind us of the days when we had an integrated and comprehensive rail service across Britain. Heady days when train journeys had one price, timetables between routes were properly interlinked and large stations were travel hubs not shopping malls.

Travel times in the days of steam were much the same as now in much of the north of England as I was reminded when travelling from Doncaster to Sheffield at a pace that seldom broke a mile a minute.  According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, spending on publicly-funded infrastructure in north of England is just £223 per resident per year compared with £5426 in London. Underinvestment over decades has left northern England's rail network with poor average journey times between major cities, inadequate capacity, and ageing rolling stock. And it showed, many of the Northern trains were ancient multiple units that must have been around even before Slade first had a hit with Merry Christmas Everybody.

Arriving at Sheffield I made enquiries about my onward tickets as I had left my railcard at home. The helpful station staff explained that I would have to buy another one, despite it only being a couple of months old. It would cost £30 but that would be more than saved on the ticket down to Banbury. They explained that National Rail, who issue railcards and ensure a consistent ticketing style, are owned by the rail operators and they do not offer replacements. The operators obviously have identified lost or forgotten rail cards as a significant source of extra income from the people formerly known as passengers.

The next leg of my journey was mid morning and operated by Cross Country trains. The train was already fairly full, mainly with groups of women going on trips. Although I had a seat reserved, the ticket collector explained that they had not put out the seating reservation cards so I would have to find an empty seat. A large group of Yorkshire women from Leeds were already opening their third bottle of bubbly; I asked them what the occasion was and they told me it was Saturday. I cleared my seat of empty cans, sandwich cartons and tried to enjoy the scenery down to Derby and then Birmingham. My small suitcase did not fit on the narrow luggage rack and when a man took the seat next to me at Derby I had to tuck my case between my legs and the seat in front. Never have I arrived at Birmingham New Street with such glee, the man got off and I could stretch my numbed legs into circulation. The train arrived on time at Banbury where I spent the afternoon with the family of my recently deceased Uncle as we shared our memories of him over an extended lunch in a typical Oxfordshire village pub.

The final leg was the perfect journey £3.95 for the 75 mile trip from Banbury to London with Chiltern Railways. Brand new carriages with comfortable seats, picture windows, uncrowded a fast journey, clean and on time. Apart that is from the last 400 yards when we had to wait 10 minutes for a platform to become available at Marylebone.

So what conclusions can I draw from this non scientific but nevertheless 'mystery passenger' account of our railways. Well the pricing structures are bizarre, the speed and price of travel is significantly better in the south where the quality of rolling stock is infinitely better. We can all be nostalgic for steam locomotives but the biggest difference from those halcyon days of steam is not the motive power but the  absence of fair and consistent pricing, the lack of uniform investment across the rail network and significant variation in the age and condition of rolling stock across the regions with the south east in particular having benefited. 

Franchising has provided us with railways that are every much as unequal as income distribution and house prices in what was once a United Kingdom. John Major's rail privatisation has had twenty years to settle down and we are frequently told of the vast increase in passenger numbers but that is mainly in the south east where the investment has been focused. And it has come at some price to the notion of a nation with an equitable distribution of resources. We are not all in this together, we live in a two speed Britain and the government intends to amplify this even further with HS2 and maybe Crossrail 2. And as for the benefits of competition, well try getting from Scotland to England without filling Richard Branson's coffers now that Virgin Trains monopolise the west and east coast routes to Scotland.

The evidence below is only one example of train journeys in Britain but it reflects so many others that I have made in recent years.

Operator   Virgin Trains         Cross Country    Chiltern 
From          Edinburgh             Sheffield             Banbury       
To              Sheffield                Banbury             London
Distance    251miles                113miles             75miles
Time          3hrs 38mins           1hr 53mins         56minutes
Cost           £107                      £20                     £4
Cost/mile   42.6p                     17.7p                  5.3p
Av Speed   69mph                   60mph                80mph

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