How not to run a railway


(Tweeted image of the interior of the Good Friday Paddington to Penzance train)

Last August we had a very enjoyable holiday in Bavaria. On our final day, we turned up at Fussen station for the train to Munich airport and found there had been a mechanical problem and it was cancelled.

What happened next was revealing. Within half an hour, a coach had arrived to take us to an intervening station. Despite our limited German, we were kept well informed of the situation. The coach was admittedly a little crowded but everyone was good humoured, particularly the guys enjoying a few beers on the back seat.

On our replacement train, there was air conditioning, which we appreciated as it was 37C outside. There were plenty of seats and the staff were pleasant, even telling us that an alternative coach would be cooler and more comfortable. We caught our flight in plenty of time.

By contrast, last Friday (the first day of a four-day bank holiday Easter weekend), the inappropriately named Great Western Railway saw fit to put a two-coach train to Penzance on the 10.00am run from Paddington, London. People who had reserved seats – exactly what they had been advised to do – were physically unable to reach and claim them because the train was so overcrowded that people were standing, or even lying, on every square inch of floor space. A pregnant woman was unable to get to the toilet. The staff were apparently nowhere to be seen, although I do remember reading a few months ago that GWR staff were threatening strike action to protest against trains being run without guards and ticket inspectors. Looks as if they lost that argument.

For those unfamiliar with British geography, this is a journey that takes five and a half hours. By the time the train reached Plymouth, somebody had figured out that it might be a good idea to lay on a bigger alternative train. Unfortunately, they hadn’t told the passengers. The station platforms became dangerously overcrowded and the British Transport Police had to be called to escort people off the train, where they waited an hour for a replacement.

Just as well there aren’t any international airports in Cornwall. If you were planning to fly from Newquay to the Isles of Scilly for Easter, tough luck.

The worst thing about this story is that it’s not at all surprising. My hubby and I are walking the South West Peninsula Coast Path, all 630 miles of it, as a ten-year project. We have always made the journey down from Manchester and back by public transport. (Cornwall, by the way, doesn’t have a single mile of motorway, and many of its coastal beauty spots are down single track roads, for those smugly asking why these people didn’t just drive there).

We’ve never had an experience quite as unpleasant as that experienced by the unfortunate travellers on Good Friday, but it always seems to baffle GWR that people going to one of the most remote and beautiful parts of England for a holiday might have small children and luggage. Provisions for either consist of squatting in the disabled space and hoping nobody with a wheelchair tries to get on (good luck with that), or sitting on your suitcase in the corridor for hours, or putting a dangerously large piece of luggage on an overhead rack and praying nobody gets killed if it falls off. We have also learned to travel with ample food and water because if there is a refreshment trolley, it will probably be confined to a single carriage and you’ll only be able to reach it by getting off at a station and sprinting to wherever that happens to be.

Neo-liberals would say that if so many people want to go from London to Cornwall on a Bank Holiday weekend, it makes sense just to charge a lot for it. Well, for the journey described above you’ll pay around £125.00 minimum return per person. That’s hardly cheap. You’ll be charged extra to reserve a seat, and if someone is sitting in it when you board the train there will be nobody around to tell them to move, so expect some dirty looks or guilt tripping if they already have two toddlers on their lap.

If train companies really can’t increase capacity on popular routes, then for heavens’ sake, can’t they behave more like airlines? By all means charge people a lot of money, but for that, at the very least, they deserve a guaranteed seat, somewhere to put their luggage, and access to refreshments and a toilet on a lengthy journey.

I’m addicted to Cornwall and I work in a school so I probably have a few more crowded journeys ahead of me. (By the way, parents in England can be prosecuted and fined £60 a day per child if they take them out of school to go on holiday). But I can see why people might go for Germany instead.

As for the Germans, and anyone else from overseas, one look at this picture and we probably won’t need to have a Euro-referendum in June. They’ll be happy to leave us well alone. Particularly if you reflect on the possibility of a terrorist managing to leave a bag in such a situation.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s