On Rail Travel

Recently I’ve been spending some time planning various excursions around the country across the coming months, mostly to use up what holiday time I had left at work. Due to neither owning, being able to afford or wanting a car right now I am pretty much at the mercy of public transport, which around here means inevitably the railway when long distances are involved. While I’m not really averse to rail travel, the state of the railways in the mainland UK are, to be blunt, not brilliant these days. So in an effort to generate some catharsis on recent rail based experiences I’ve decided to put typeface to word processor and write about the whole thing and bring you, my loyal hypothetical audience, along for the ride. You Lucky, Lucky People.

For the last twenty years, since the John Major government sold them from public hands, mainline railways in the mainland UK (but not Northern Ireland, interestingly) have been split between a varying number of companies each running a specific area and/or route, and a single government owned organisation responsible for the actual rails themselves. Most of these passenger companies are privately owned, but a couple have ended up back in the hands of government after some business type shenanigans. Anyway, theoretically speaking despite this rather confusing situation, rail fares should be standardised across the whole network and not based upon how many company areas you cross in a single journey.

Theoretically is the operative word here. I’ve had two separate occurrences in the last 12 months that prove otherwise. In the area I live in I am pretty much at the end of three separate local lines, so to get anywhere significant, or even just onto the mainline, it’s pretty much a given you need to use more than just the two companies that call locally. Earlier in the year I had to travel from home to Birmingham for a convention, which involved getting a local train to a mainline station and then from there onto a cross country train the rest of the way. Initially I tried to order this as one ticket for the whole journey and was quoted a price, but then I noticed another price that was fifteen pounds less for just the cross country train without any connection. Further investigation revealed that the connection could be done for £3 each way, so somehow the cost of that went up 5 times when ordering the journey as a single. The only other factor in this was that it went between two companies. Similarly just recently I booked a journey to London, which involves a short hop to another station then straight on to the Big Smoke. As two separate tickets each way I was able to get the joinery as First Class for the actually-quite-reasonable amount of less than seventy quid. Pretty good, right? Well, like before if I wanted to do it as a single ticket per direction, firstly I wouldn’t have been able to book a specific train for some unfathomable reason, and also a standard class ticket would have cost me £75 per direction!

This sort of thing is endemic to the rail system here, with loads of factors that make little sense when you think about it. Things like how two singles often costing less than a return ticket (and thus removing any point to buying the latter), how in some areas short hops cost more than longer distances over the same line, the frankly insane handling of peak and off peak times and so on. While as far as I can remember there has always been some oddities, this seems to be getting worse and worse with each passing year (that or I’ve merely became more aware of it as I grow older), and I think it shows that the current system is incredibly broken. One of the oft-touted “advantages” of privatising the railways was to provide the consumer (muggins here in this case) with “choice” and “better service” due to competition. That choice has become somewhat hobsonian when all the companies operate on the same basic pricing structures. Combine that with the near constant yearly fare hikes, often in the region of 3%, the competition has yet to see any actual advantage price wise for the average passenger as far as I am concerned.

Which is to say nothing about “better service.” I live in the north east of England, and most of the money for upgrading the network tends to go to important cities, almost always London (and things connecting to it). Of the two companies serving my town, one has to make do with an eclectic mix of hand-me-downs starting with awful bus-on-rails things built on the cheap in the late ‘70s when the government didn’t feel like funding the railways much. These are appalling vehicles, they’re uncomfortable, loud, somewhat unreliable, and a few don’t even have heating, which is an absolute horror in the British winters. Other than that they run pretty much whatever was lying around when British Rail bit the dust in 1994, and nothing really over 2 carriages long. Not very good from a passengers point of view. The other company, now that’s one that actually has had money spent on it, and it currently running the newest trains in the area. This presumably came about because it connects up to a major city and it’s airport. Seems pretty good in comparison, right? Well in many ways it is, however it’s services seem limited to 3 car trains which, on a major route such as this, is woefully inadequate. Indeed, one of the routes that starts from my town was recently declared one of the most overcrowded in Britain, and the busiest outside of London. Having ridden this route across it’s full distance I can confirm 3 carriages are not good for this service at all, especially when you have to be on it for over an hour.

This isn’t just limited to the North East. Basically anywhere that either isn’t London, connected to London or will become connected to London gets shafted. The government may promise shiny new trains, faster networks and all manner of good stuff but out here in the sticks you will likely see fuck all good from it, it’s all designed to trickle everything capitalwards. Shame, really, as if it worked properly the railway system would be, as intended, a great system for movement of people, it’s just the way it’s been handled that holds it back. If the system had been kept intact rather than split into tiny splinters I imagine some of these problems would be mitigated. Would this mean staying publicly owned? I don’t honestly know, I can imagine if it were a single private entity it would likely work just as well. One problem is the whole putting-profits-over-customers thing that has led to the cutting of overheads damaging services, so maybe a not-for-profit model is needed. One network, East Coast Trains, ended up as this due to the previous franchise holder having it’s franchise stripped by the government, and it has been consistently lauded as one of the better franchises in the country. If trusting the government is a bit of a stretch (understandable given current goings on) perhaps cooperatives would be the way forwards, after all if you’re aiming to impress “shareholders” and owners, when they are also your customers and users it means you have to treat them right.

As I said, the railways in this country are annoyingly broken. For a system many rely upon, it consistently fails to deliver unless you are part of a lucky geographical minority. If things carry on as is, I can foresee a breaking point happening very soon, which as a frequent rail user is cause for concern. I am curious to see what gets done to solve this problem, especially now more and more people are getting wise to how broken things are. For the time being, though? I’ll just have to put up with the crap trains and hefty fares. At least I still have access to a railcard for the next year or so.

Until Next Time, Folks
—Went off the rails a long time ago.

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