Sunday, 26 July 2015


14th April 2015


I do enjoy a good whinge from time to time and I feel one coming on right now. People tend not to appreciate whingers, so let us call what follows a 'critical observation'. I was going to add 'constructive', but I don't think that would be strictly accurate.

I know I am not alone in railing about most of the transport systems in UK (amongst much else I hasten to add), especially those which actively involve rails, but I met someone the other day who commutes by train to London every day and was going apoplectic with rage about, in his case, First Great Western Railways. This hit a chord and prompted me to burst into print and have a bloody good 'critical observation'. I feel more people should do so but, in true British tradition, they tend just to shrug their shoulders, click their tongues and resign themselves to a "well, that's just how it is" sort of comment. Of course my observations will have absolutely no effect, but I find it quite therapeutic.

You might remember an old British Rail slogan back in the 70s 'Let the Train Take the Strain'. Nowadays, in the UK, it would be more pertinent to re-phrase that as 'Let the Train Cause the Strain'. Those with nothing better to do might have plumbed the depths of this long blog and perhaps appreciate that I have travelled on many railways throughout the world and therefore credit myself with substantial experience of Johnny Foreigner's railway systems. I feel qualified to make comparisons and there is no question in my mind that the British railway system is, in comparison with most others, appalling. Whatever bullshit the PR experts like to spin it is for the most part (comparatively) eye-wateringly expensive, inefficient, uncomfortable, overcrowded and, most frustratingly, unreliable. I have a theory regarding the reliability of British trains; they run just reliably enough to persuade you to use them. However, the likelyhood of a train being on time (or operating at all) is in inverse proportion to the urgency and importance of your journey.

OK, Britain does suffer from two main disadvantages, other than sheer bureaucratic inefficiency, which make improvements to the overland and underground systems difficult, if not impossible. Firstly we invented, installed and exported the damned things in early Victorian days. As a result the network is constrained by size of bridges, tunnels, stations and ancient engineering. Secondly, this country is overpopulated and crowded and becoming exponentially ever more so. Therefore the infrastructure seems continually to face a losing battle in keeping up with demand (same applies to roads, hospitals, housing and much else for that matter), let alone advance ahead into clear air. We have, effectively, run out of space and cannot, a la China, just flatten things at a stroke to put bigger and better stuff in place. I can think of many things which, if flattened, would benefit the country enormously. Hull springs to mind, and Basingstoke and Wolverhampton and Reading and ...........the list goes on. Sadly these places will just get bigger, uglier and nastier. I suppose one has to bear these restrictions in mind, but I won't let it hinder my rant.

What is the point of faster trains if they don't leave and arrive on time? I would much rather travel more slowly if it meant travelling in greater comfort on a regular service and getting there on time. One likes to be able to plan a journey to arrive on schedule having had a relaxing rest on board, not to travel at Mach 2 on a roller-coaster ride which, due to 'unforeseen technical problems' arrives late anyway, or maybe doesn't even start. Commuter routes into London have come under particular fire recently for scrum-like overcrowding and inevitable delays. Even the boss of one southern network remarked that the service is, in his own words.... "shit, and you would transport cattle more humanely". I remember the days when the journey time from London to Newcastle was about 7 hours. So slow perhaps, but they ran a sleeper service then and one  could have a night out in London, catch the 11.30pm train, travel/sleep in relative comfort, be woken in the morning with a cup of tea (in a proper china service) and disembark at Newcastle Central Station at 7.30am in time for a delicious served breakfast at what was then the smart, but inexpensive, Station Hotel before going to an appointment in the city at 9.00am. No longer. The best you can do is get a 6.15am service arriving, so quickly and inconveniently, in Newcastle at 9.45am, perhaps. Bloody inconvenient.

Aren't we all too often infuriated by the miriad delays and cancellations accompanied by automated  and thoroughly insincere apologetic announcements with, probably spurious, reasons for them. Frankly, I am really not interested in why the blasted thing is cancelled, delayed or which involves a bus journey half way. I suspect there is an overstaffed department whose sole responsibility is to make up ever more fatuous and imaginative reasons as to why we have been inconvenienced. We are all familiar with 'unforeseen engineering works', 'signal failure', 'debris on the line' (see previous blog), 'person on the line', 'animals on the line,' 'trees on the line', probably 'newts on the line', 'overhanging branches','overhanging bats', 'wrong type of of snow' (all two inches of it), 'wrong type of leaves', 'windy weather forecast', 'man overboard', 'staff delayed (ie slept in)' or the 'On-board Customer Services Manager (the conductor to you and me) having a nervous breakdown', etc. etc. The list is endless. I just want to leave and get there on time with the luxury of a comfortable and spacious seat without mortgaging the house to travel 1st Class. Some hope. As for planning to travel by rail on Sundays and public holidays; forget it.  Of course these peak travel times for the holidaying rabble are the periods carefully selected for 'ongoing scheduled maintenance' to 'further upgrade and enhance the modernisation of our network', no doubt inevitably for our 'safety and comfort', and which nearly always unexpectedly 'overun'. This 'ongoing maintenance' is, of course, like roadworks where you see lots of cones and speed restrictions but nobody actually working, and is never-ending. The result is often unruly and sometimes even violent scenes with heaving masses of furious delayed, diverted or just dumped passengers fighting to get somewhere; anywhere! Why do they bother, but then the roads and airports during these periods are probably an even worse option.

The trains in Switzerland are a good example of how it should be done. They really do run like Swiss clockwork, even during holiday periods, using printed timetables from pre-nominated (on paper) platforms, and almost invariably depart and arrive smack on time, with barely a rattle or jolt, despite, believe it or not, sometimes having quite a lot of snow to deal with. They, and all other European lines are not only more comfortable and efficient, they are also comparatively much cheaper than ours. British fares, despite the labyrinthine and random complexities of ticket types and pricing for which you need a degree in Applied Chaos Theory to begin to understand, are on average 3 times more expensive than in the rest of the world (with the possible exception of Australia.... a long 'critical observation' is warranted there (and given...see Ghan blog) where they sometimes throw in bed bugs, at no extra charge admittedly, to make your expensive overnight journeys that little bit more memorable. In fact I don't believe it is possible to keep track of British fares with their seemingly random increases well above the rate of inflation and the off-peak, super-off-peak and other combinations and the times when you can use them. A system which allows you to travel more cheaply on a 'split' journey (ie two single tickets using an intermediate station at which you don't get off) than one single straight through cannot be logical or fair. And why should a return ticket cost the same as a single? In most sensible countries a single price is simply half that of a return. Too logical perhaps, but I suppose here they would then just further increase the price of a return. As for those automatic ticket machines which, to the uninitiated, are more confusing and time consuming to operate than the control panel for a space shuttle....well don't get me onto that subject. The one (the only one on the platform catering for a busy commuter line) I regularly try to use is carefully positioned so that on a sunny day it is impossible to read the screen. A queue of three people normally takes about half an hour to clear and  involves much cursing and thumping of the screen, and at least one 'customer' fails to get a ticket at all. Normally me.

The inhuman crowding and cramped conditions on so many trains is unforgivable and probably dangerous. As you may have experienced, on most southern commuter trains and even on some longer distance routes, standing room only is the norm with baggage blocking the aisles. This is frequently the case if you happen to be travelling to a destination near which there is due to be an 'event', ie pop-concert or football match. The idea of putting on extra services or more carriages seems rarely to occur, or is impossible. Often when a long distance service is cancelled they even have the nerve to remove all seat reservations, for those with the foresight to book them, on the following train to cram on more victims from the cancelled one...for which they apologise of course. In any event the seats in standard class are designed for midgets and if they have a fold-down table it is barely big enough on which to balance a cup of coffee, let alone a book as well; many the occasions of overturned cup, soaked book and scalded lap. There is no space for the window passenger, even of normal size, to get out without the aisle occupant having to move, and at the seats facing each other over a table I have fought many an acrimonious under-the-table battle over leg-room supremacy. The central aisles are carefully designed to be narrow enough to prevent people passing in opposite directions or to become completely stuck behind the helpful 'buffet' trolley which, in turn, is probably stuck by luggage for which there is no room left in the luggage racks. Admittedly the situation is not helped by the increasing number of Very Fat People (VFP) whom you encounter. It really can be quite oppressive sitting next to someone with the proportions of a barrage balloon who literally overflows, sweating and grunting, into your space. The Amtrak trains in the USA don't have this problem. They take into consideration VFP of American proportions and design-in suitable space. OK, at the other end of the scale, I have travelled on one of those 'local' trains, in Sri Lanka as it happens, where people hang outside the windows and sit on the roof. They do this with good reason. I made the mistake of boarding early for a space inside the carriage on one of these and very nearly suffocated as a result. After 5 minutes into the journey I would have given anything for an outside perch, however precarious, if only I could have moved a muscle to get there, or indeed speak. But those trains tend to be short distance commuters and one can't complain as the fare is only about 2p. Or if you die en-route. The long distance express trains in India were excellent (and cheap) where, except in the very lowest class...and there are 8 buy a ticket which automatically includes a seat/bunk reservation. No seat available; get the next train. Ergo, no standing in the aisles. Same in China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Russia, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and most other countries which operate big, or even not so big, networks.

Perhaps we should introduce a system, similar to restricting the size of carry-on baggage with airlines, whereby passengers are made to pass through a calibrated 'chute' and if too fat to get through it are escorted to a special freight style carriage with heavy-duty bench seats along the sides and no access to the rest of the train. I suspect this idea, like so many of my best, however practical, might not be politically acceptable.

Electronic timetable display boards at stations are another of my bĂȘtes noire. These are essential to allow for efficient and flexible platform allocation, I was assured, and no doubt for our 'comfort and safety' of course. They are operated by railway staff with either a grudge against humanity or a particularly warped sense of humour.  I remember waiting for a train from Victoria due to depart at 1.10pm. I was pushing a friend in a wheelchair as it happened. By 1.00pm a crowd of us, like a colony of meercats, were craning our necks watching the electronic board which indicated 'no platform yet allocated'. At 1.05pm it suddenly flashed up the platform number. There was a mad stampede to get to the gates which, as it happened, were a considerable distance away. After a seriously knackering wheelchair sprint with a Paralympic qualifying time, we got onto the platform but, at the last minute, sweating profusely, I had to abandon my wheelchair-bound mate and dive into a carriage doorway just as it was closing to jam it open before the train left. An irate 'official' appeared (they do irate very well) and I had to convince him to load the wheelchair-bound person before I would let go of the electronically operated door. This might have been dangerous, but it was the only option if we were to get onto the train. I was probably lucky not to get arrested by the station gestapo for endangering myself. What were they playing at? Which reminds me of another theory; if you arrive for a train early, it will be delayed. If you arrive for a train slightly late it will have left on time.

On another occasion I was due to meet someone arriving at Euston. The electronic arrivals board indicated that the train was due in at platform 2. Several of us made our way to platform 2. No train arrived. We went back to the main hall to see that the board now indicated the arrival at platform 14. Our group ran over to platform 14. There was a train there but not the correct one. On returning rapidly to the hall we saw the board had changed indication back to platform 2! It was like one of those Benny Hill sketches as we all then scuttled back to platform 2. I'm not making this up. Some bored malignant joker at the controls was probably having a 'a bit of a laff' with his mates as he (or she) got us running back and forth across the station concourse.  This is not the sign of a civilised travel system.

It has been pointed out, frequently, that a major cause of much of this chaos is the result of the disparate organisations, with their vastly well paid and 'protected from shouldering any real blame' Übermensch, which are responsible (or more usually claim not to be responsible when it goes wrong) for various parts of the network operation. Network Rail (track infrastructure), Station management (station facilities), rolling-stock manufacturers (the machines), individual railway companies (schedules), ticketing organisations (confused pricing options), the Government (policy, I suppose) and, of course, the various Trade Unions who love to threaten, or carry out, strikes for yet more 'pie' just when you most need the system to operate efficiently at it's busiest periods. Pure blackmail of course. Can't wait for at least the Underground (as per the comparatively reliable DLR) to operate driverless trains.  I have probably missed a few other cogs in this complex wheel. No doubt there is an enormous 'Elf 'n Safety' organisation to stick it's oar in to further complicate the matter.... for your comfort and safety, of course.

What to do about all this? Sack the lot of them and start again? I haven't a clue, and anyway that is not the remit of this 'critical observation'.

I scratch the surface here, and have not yet even started on my pet subject;  the most irritating, stress inducing, tedious, mind-blowingly stupid aspect of rail travel, especially the Underground........namely those  ridiculous and patronising ANNOUNCEMENTS. To be continued and for which, I suppose, we wish to apologise in advance.

PS. Just back from a trip to London from Hungerford. Normal day return cost (with travel card) £17.45. Set off at 6.18am, peak period apparently (most sensible people are asleep then) when they do not accept travel cards; cost of day return; £54.50! I can fly from London to Aberdeen for less than that. There were only 4 other passengers on the 3 carriage train. I asked the conductor (sorry Customer Services Manager) "why so bleedin' expensive?". She said it was probably because so few people used it (am I surprised?) that they had to increase the price! Talk about a prime example of the Law of Diminishing Returns.

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