Wednesday, 2 May 2007

This isn't the Age of the Train

The title of this post comes from a 1970s television advertisement promoting the use of the railways in the UK: 'This is the Age of the Train' it would say. It was fronted by a man now called Sir Jimmy Saville, a successful DJ of the time and charity fundraiser, back on (cable) television now, again hosting 'Jim'll Fix It' which for many years gave children and some adults the chance to have dreams come true, like meet a favourite celebrity.

Anyway, putting Sir Jimmy aside, how different is the railway network in the UK today? In 1993 it was privatised in the last of the big sweep of selling off state run industries that had started under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. As with all privatisations, many people benefited both from the share deals and from running the companies. The service is now provided by a range of companies, none of which is particularly good. In particular it is a nightmare if you want to pick up connections across the country. Trying to travel to York from Southampton and back recently would have meant going on 4 different companies' trains excluding the London Underground section. Costs have risen so much that it is now cheaper to fly from the South of England to Scotland or even Yorkshire rather than take the train. The far systems are a nightmare and the people who staff the call centres often have little idea about what the best one is for you. On more than one occasion I have seen people suffer heavy fines because, unknown to them, they had got the wrong sort of ticket. In one case the guard would not even issue a receipt to show that the passenger had paid the fine leaving them open to a repeat fine when the next guard came on duty.

GNER (a.k.a. Great Northern) a company that runs trains in North-East England (and I know many of you will know much of what I am saying, but I include the background for people from other countries, not alive at the time and for the time when my words are still drifting around the internet and the world has altered a great deal) apparently has the worst reputation with up to 9 different sorts of fares for the same service and penalties of up to £100 if you happen to have got the wrong ticket. Fortunately I have not travelled with them ever, but most other rail companies behave similarly if to a lesser extent.

In 1996 even the Conservative Party who had been behind privatisation admitted it had made a mistake separating the rail service from the responsibility for track and services. There are 27 companies running services in the UK at present, though some of these overlap in ownership like Virgin Trains West Coast and Virgin Trains Cross Country. Disasters such as Southall - 1997, Ladbroke Grove/Paddington -1999, Hatfield - 2000, Potters Bar - 2002 can be seen as a result of the division of track and service responsibility. Though, note, worse casualties happened at Clapham in 1988 and there was the Purley crash in 1989 both before privatisation.

People forget that Otto von Bismarck, the German Imperial Chancellor 1871-90 began the nationalisation of railways in Germany a task completed by the end of the First World War. Under a Conservative government in 1923 the number of companies was reduced to only 4, so all the nostalgia for the multiple train companies of the Victorian era when each company serving a town would have its own station (even a comparatively small place like Oxford had two stations next door to each other and Birmingham had three companies each with passenger and with freight stations) is misplaced. Fortunately it seems that Scottish trains may be brought back under unified state control.

At a time when we are trying to reduce pollution, how come the UK has adopted a path that drives people as fast as it can from using railways because of cost, poor service, confusing regulations and difficulty in scheduling a journey over different parts of the country? It has driven me to driving. The personal price is I save money, but get more stressed and get to read fewer books.

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