In common with the rest of the UK I seem to make fewer journeys by train than I used to, and it’s not just because I’m terrified of finding myself next to the seemingly ubiquitous Michael Portillo wearing one of those ghastly jackets.
The main reason is that like millions of others I’m fed up with the now standard rail travel ordeal of abrupt cancellations, unexplained delays, train breakdowns and missed connections, followed by the palaver of claiming the insultingly token compensation that’s sometimes but not always available.
My experience is probably normal, in that routes I use the most – the Airedale, Wharfedale and Settle-Carlisle lines, trains from Leeds or Bradford to Hull, York, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool, and occasional trains to London, Glasgow and Edinburgh – have simply become unpredictable.
I feel for those who have no choice but to suffer using our train network. Turning up at the station to catch a train is, frankly, a game of Russian railette. And to add insult to injury many peak time trains would make a skinny sardine feel claustrophobic. So it was little surprise to learn that spending per head of passenger in southern England is two and a half times greater than it is in the north.
Having tried to cut back my car usage in the past few years I don’t feel good about seeing it as a more reliable means of reaching my destination, and I’m sure I’m not the only one suffering this dilemma. Any modern public transport system should have as one of its fundamental aims the removal of traffic from roads, but the current state of our railways is surely adding to congestion.
The national joke that Northern Rail has become peaked back in the summer when its new timetable led to almost a third of trains running late, extremely late or cancelled. TransPennine Express fared little better. From the comparative silence in the mainstream media since then you might think the timetable fiasco was just an aberration, and that the trains are now running like clockwork, but take a look at #northernrail to see this isn’t the case. One of last week’s more printable tweets was: “Why are trains so awful in the North of England?”
Adding to the chaos is the ongoing strike by RMT members on Northern Rail services. The union is fighting the company’s plan to reduce the provision of guards on trains, claiming it would compromise passenger safety. But if my recent experience on an Ilkley to Bradford Forster Square train is any guide this has had knock-on consequences for staff morale. I sat in the rear carriage while the conductor/guard and another Northern Rail employee who’d just come off duty whinged about the company, while further up the train passengers were getting on and off without tickets being purchased or inspected.
I’d like to think that Labour’s promised renationalisation of the railways is the answer. I really would. Things certainly couldn’t be much worse. And despite all those stories about British Rail sandwiches curling at the edges – and Spike Milligan’s Goon Show joke about the long-missing Van Gogh ear being found in one –I don’t remember public ownership being a bad thing before the Conservatives handed over our trains to private companies in the mid 1990s.