Who’d want to run a railway?

It’s good to have an opportunity to defend the UK’s often-criticised rail system. Did I hear you say “a rare opportunity”? Shame on you!

Last Sunday I was travelling, as I often do, from Cheltenham to Bristol Temple Meads. This time I took the first train of the day, the 09.52; I had been surprised that there wasn’t anything earlier, but as the train was half-empty, the operator would no doubt have replied that there’s no demand for an earlier train on a Sunday.

You don’t have to be a railway fan, just a traveller, to know that the franchise for cross-country routes, particularly from my home in the South-West to the North-East and Scotland, is no longer held by Virgin Cross-Country but by the imaginatively named Cross-Country Trains. You might not also know that Cross-Country Trains is / are run by Arriva.

I was chatting to the very helpful guy running the shop (probably his title was Retail Manager or something like it.) I was keen to found out what differences the franchise change had made (I hadn’t observed too many, apart from a new and rather dull external colour scheme on the trains which they had taken over from Virgin) and he was very forthcoming. Yes, there was a definite improvement in the new company as seen from the viewpoint of the employees, all of who had transferred across from Virgin, like the trains.

I told Paul (not his real name) that my only beef about the change was that it had been reported that the main reason Virgin lost the franchise to Arriva (several years earlier than it was due to expire) was because of frequent complaints of overcrowding, i.e. insufficient capacity, but I had seen little change in that regard.

Paul however said that progress is being made and Arriva had just bought five renovated “HST sets”, i.e. the so-called High-Speed Trains. They’re widely used elsewhere in the country; I say “so-called” because the name is a misnomer on this part of the route, where average speeds are not that high due to the frequent bends. He said that these new acquisitions had been extensively renovated and were better than the “Voyager” trains that were previously the only trains on this route. I agreed that the HSTs were more comfortable and roomy, less noisy, and had more capacity compared with the four- and five coach Voyagers. I added that they also didn’t suffer from the smelly-loo syndrome of the Voyagers; the latter always remind me of the scene in the movie version of “Glengarry Glen Ross” when the Al Pacino character, holding forth in a bar, says: “all train carriages smell vaguely of shit. It gets so you don’t mind it. That’s the worst thing that I can confess. You know how long it took me to get there? A long time.”

Enough of movies: Paul told me that the five new trains (well, second-hand but renovated) were the most that “the Government” had allowed Arriva / Cross-Country to buy. That’s not the first time that I’ve heard “from the horse’s mouth”, i.e. from a railway employee, that the TOCs (Train Operating Companies) cannot make their own decisions about procurement of new trains and that new trains / rolling stock are allocated centrally. Makes you wonder about the thinking behind privatisation. It seems to be a typical British muddle. You sell off the railways, giving private companies local monopolies. However, their prices, i.e. fares, are controlled to a great extent in a way not many private enterprises are. Then you can take away their franchise if their services are overcrowded, i.e. they don’t have enough seating capacity (e.g. the Virgin Cross-Country case, plus threats of similar sanctions have probably been discussed with First Great Western) but if they want to buy new trains they are told they can’t. The FGW employee who first told me their hands were tied in this respect, said that most new trains are currently being allocated to routes serving the north, where FGW doesn’t operate. I don’t know how true that is. Furthermore, I know that late running can bring financial penalties, but how many times have you been on a train that is held up by a signalling problem (which is clearly outside the TOC’s control), or because another train (which may be from a different TOC) is running late? That’s often been my experience.

I know that the Rail Minister Tom Harris (in July 2007) said Arriva’s commitment to increase capacity – “it has promised a 35 per cent rise in the number of passenger seats on rush-hour trains by June 2009” – had played a key part in the award. Strange that he used the phrase “[Arriva] has promised to … “ when his department has so much control over whether they can keep that promise.

In short: we love to complain about the railways in this country. Our moans are generally directed at the company whose train we’re travelling on, but who’d want to run a railway company these days, with the messy structure we have? Just stand at a major junction station (say Leeds) and count how many trains arrive and depart every hour; many of them operated by different companies, and using track and signalling systems owned by yet another company. I rest my case.

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