Wednesday 1 July 2009

Finally, let the train take the strain...not us

Thank god, National Express are losing the East Coast franchise. It has gone steadily down hill since the days when Sea Containers ran it, and now journeys cost the earth.
Norman Baker MP said this morning on the BBC Today programme that it was time for a rethink on train contracts so they were run in the interest of the traveller, rather than just for the maximum profit, so that the price of tickets, reliability and the service were also factors in awarding the contract.
As someone who gets on a train twice a day, and regularly takes longer journeys to visit family, I couldn't agree more. A few months ago in the interests of making it "easier" for the passengers train companies got rid of a variety of ticket types - the end result is a disappearance of the useful saver ticket - which meant you could travel off-peak for a not unreasonable fare without committing to a single train. Now what is left are the ultra early deals where you commit to specific train times, and massively expensive open returns. Neither of these are ideal for the average person, family or business trip.
Under Sea Containers the East Coast train service, which links London, Peterborough, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh, had improved considerably, was running efficiently, had innovations such as a buffet carriage with seats, which was open to everyone, and much loved by those going all the way to Edinburgh. The staff were genuinely friendly, and prices were not too awful.
After overbidding in 2005, Sea Containers-owned GNER found the franchise unsustainable and eventually lost the route, and National Express took over.
Last time I travelled up to Edinburgh under the new National Express regime the staff were saying everything had changed for the worst. The sit-down restaurant car was being closed, they weren't even allowed to sell a cup of Earl Grey tea or herbal tea - even though the teabags were sitting there, because "I've been told we can't". An hour out of Kings Cross the buffet had sold out of sandwiches and there was a queue for "food" down the carriage. Staff were stressed, and worried about their jobs.
Meanwhile prices on that line have been spiralling to unreasonable peaks - National Express said they couldn't meet their targets because passenger demand was falling. Not surprising when you see how much it cost to travel by train.
A visitor from Sunderland the other day said it was cheaper to fly. And recently although I would much rather take the train, I have headed for the airport to make the journey because rail fares were so ludicrously high.
This week I checked the prices of an off-peak return to Durham from London, a few days ahead of travel. Despite leaving and travelling back outside rush hour, the price of a flexible return was more than £200. That's £200 for a journey of 2.5 hours.
Meanwhile, let's look over the Channel for inspiration. A five-hour trip on the TGV, the French fast train from Paris to Toulouse, costs £68-£94, booked about a week in advance. Doesn't that sound more reasonable?
Other reasons why train travel in the rest of Europe is a better experience include not having to stand up in the smelly cubicle next to the toilets for three hours as you often have to do on British trains, despite having bought a ticket.
And in France, Germany and Switzerland, where I have travelled extensively, the trains keep strictly to the timetable, and have buffets which don't promise to open then after you have joined the train for a four hour journey with no food, and then suddenly announce that they don't have any food stocks after all. Ah, yes, this is a quality of life issue.
Part of the reason British people bang on about declining quality of life is because all these things drive us to distraction, and on to the already busy roads. It isn't fair if you have paid £100 for a train ticket that you don't get to sit down. It isn't right that on a five hour journey you can't buy a cup of tea because the buffet has not been stocked.
Travel by train is better than driving and flying for so many reasons - it's not just about it being better for the environment. It should be better for human beings too. There's something about sharing a train carriage which is better for society than travelling up and down roads in a separate bubble that is your car. In a train people mix and share a space, it breaks that sense that we are all increasingly separated from each other. And thirdly, train travel when it goes well is a lot less stressful than travelling by air.
So here's the challenge Lord Adonis, can you do something better with the East Coast mainline? Can you turn it into an affordable and comfortable way of getting between some of Britain's most important cities? Can you do something about the need for every inch of space in every carriage - including the aisles and the toilets -- to be filled with standing passengers? Can you give us a reliable service that works?
For at the end of the day, we want to let the train take the strain - but we want to be able to afford it too. Come on, surprise us.

No comments: