Tuesday, 22 March 2011

One Wacky Solution To Our Rail Problem

Like many people, last night I sat down with interest to watch Dispatches with Richard Wilson. For those who didn't see it, it followed the actor as he travelled around the country encountering problems with ticket machines, fare prices and overloaded commuter trains along the way. It seems Wilson's irritation with our rail system was stoked by simply forgetting his wallet - and thus his rail card - which landed him with a £280 penalty fare for a £15 ticket. This kind of injustice is all too common and ticket inspectors I've seen relish the opportunity to catch someone out. Sometimes you have to wonder if they receive bonuses for attacking their customers.

My own train horror story comes, not from me, but from someone I was fortunate enough to be able to help. A woman with four children showed the conductor at Leeds her pre-booked tickets and asked him which train she was supposed to get on down to London. Whether he did it on purpose or whether it was stupidity, he directed her to the train which left half an hour earlier than hers, thus invalidating her tickets. I was standing in the vestibule ready to get off at Wakefield Westgate when the announcer gave their final warning about checking you were travelling on the right train - then the doors promptly slid shut. The woman I'd noted ushering her brood into the carriage rushed out ashen-faced but it was too late. Nobody else in the vestibule gave a damn about her panicking. Perhaps they'd seen it all before but it struck me as another example of how heartless we've become as a country. Knowing the train system as I did, I knew the Leeds to London trains always stopped at Wakefield Westgate. I advised her to get off there, showed her where to stand so she could get straight into her carriage, and even helped her get her pram off the train while other travellers sighed impatiently at us. Her son, probably about ten, thanked me sincerely. But what would've happened if I hadn't stepped in? Full price fares for one adult and four kids down to London? No wonder she looked petrified.

My solution for our train difficulties are bound to be dismissed. For starters, it involves getting rid of this ridiculous HS2 line which very few people want. I can't see that it'll help the North at all. In fact, I think it'll encourage businesses to move their headquarters towards London, safe in the knowledge that people can get there in under an hour from Birmingham. When you look at the timings, we're not making things much better and, even if you consider the time saved a cause for massive celebration, you have to admit that the people it will benefit are few and far between. Not your average traveller who just wants to get to London; not the people forced to watch as their landscape is ruined. What are the fares going to be on this thing? With prices rising to unaffordable levels at the moment, how is anybody going to be expected to travel on this thing? Will it become the privilege of the rich and famous, something I'm half-inclined to believe it's intended to be anyway?

So my solution: ditch HS2. Invest all those billions in easing congestion on current lines - add new carriages and expand stations in order to deal with these new carriages. Make sure that when you put in the order for these new carriages it goes to a British firm, thus giving our manufacturers a boost along the way. Politicians and high-class businessmen may not be able to travel quite as briskly as they would like from Birmingham to London but the rest of us would have a much more comfortable journey.

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