Ten years in, and still they can’t make the trains run on time
There comes a moment in the twilight of any regime when the mood of the mob suddenly changes. An ugliness descends, a ruthlessness, a fury. It is the essence of all great putsches that by then the rulers have become too arrogant or isolated to notice.
If the Tsar had been smart enough to go incognito around the soup kitchens of St Petersburg in 1917, he might have had an inkling of what was to hit him. If Margaret Thatcher had put a scarf over her head and sneaked up Whitehall to have a peek at the poll tax riots in Trafalgar Square in 1990, she might not have been defenestrated by her party.
And if Labour ministers had the guts to use the Monday morning service of any First Great Western train, they would discover why the mood of the British travelling public is poised to go critical.
The foam is bubbling ominously over the side of the alembic. One by one, the carbon graphite rods of public patience are popping out of the nuclear pile. Nail after nail is pinging from the great wooden crate, and any moment now the vast Tyrannosaurus Rex of commuter rage will come smashing forth to storm from Paddington to Westminster and CHOMP!; and if Tony Blair or Gordon Brown have the slightest sense of self-preservation, they will go tonight, and allow themselves to be wedged in under the armpit of their integrated transport disaster, and see what it is like to be a commuter to points west.
Let them crowd into the toilets, currently accommodating four people standing. Let them sway together with the train-users of the South East, cheek by jowl, hip to hip, so closely wedged in their Adelante cattle trucks that the nostril breath of their neighbour ruffles their hair and the dreadful iPod shish-tinkle pours from the ear of the girl in front and fills their skull.
Let them hear the pitiful bleating excuses of First Great Western: the drivers who overslept, the drivers who woke up in time but could not get a taxi, the drivers who simply forgot to stop at certain stations, in a fantastic new phenomenon known as “driver diagram error”.
Let them learn all about the journey times, such as the trip from Pangbourne to London that 20 years ago could be comfortably accomplished in 40 minutes, and seems to take 80 minutes today.
If, as I strongly suggest, they take the Henley route, they will discover that the fastest journey time is now on average 30 minutes longer, and although that gives them more time to enjoy the beautiful riparian scenery, they will find out what it is like to chew the seats in frustration, not least since the cutbacks mean there is hardly ever anything else to eat.
They will be told, if they have the nerve to experience the havoc they have wreaked, that the slogan of First Great Western is “Transforming Travel”; and if they conduct one of their impromptu focus groups aboard, they will find out that, for thousands of people, FGW has indeed transformed travel into a living hell.
Across the commuter belt, children are in effect growing up without seeing their parents. Social lives are vanishing. Economic opportunities are going begging as people decide they simply can’t face the journey, or the £5,000 cost of a season ticket — and the most amazing thing of all is the response of the train company to this Tokyo-style overcrowding.
It has adopted a new timetable that seems, if anything, to have made matters worse, and has decided to alleviate pressures at one station by deciding to bypass another.
Isn’t that brilliant? My email inbox is melting down with outrage, and there must be dozens of other MPs who would confirm that First Great Western is about as popular in the area as Union Carbide in Bhopal.
Which in one way is fair enough, since the new timetable is indeed a shambles; and yet the passenger fury directed at the train operating companies is also very convenient for the Government.
The fundamental problem is not that the train companies are monstrously abusing the travelling public, though they are. The real scandal is the way Gordon Brown and the Treasury are screwing money out of these companies in the first place, making them pay so much for the franchise that they simply don’t have enough to invest in services.
Gordon has stung First Great Western for £1.2 billion over the next 10 years, and no wonder they have old Adelantes and Turbos chuntering over the routes, when what they need are the 472-seat high-speed trains.
As it happens, they do physically possess these high-speed trains, but they are currently in mothballs, and cannot be put back on track for the next 12 months, for reasons no one seems to be able to explain.
Unbelievable! And even if they did want to lay on more capacity now, the Government interferes at every turn. There are currently 14 officials in the Department of Transport who are working on the railway timetable, and at a recent meeting with angry MPs Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, was seen to be poring over his copy of Bradshaw and musing on whether or not an 0848 service could be added to some branch line, in addition to the 0932. The Secretary of State!
The Government is simultaneously blaming the train companies for the mess, while bleeding them of cash and micromanaging the timetable to destruction, and at a time when passenger numbers have risen by 40 per cent over the past 10 years.
Gordon’s strategy seems to be to try to deter anyone else from using the railways (and numbers are predicted to rise a further 50 per cent to 2012) by forcing the train companies to supply a disintegrating service at an extortionate price. In the meantime, passenger misery will increase, and in a real and appreciable way our quality of life will decline.
It is no way to run a railroad, let alone a country. If First Great Western really cannot produce these high-speed trains until the end of the year, I suggest that passengers unite, roll up our sleeves, and offer to get them out of mothballs ourselves. It is no use looking to Gordon Brown, because it is painfully obvious that he is broke, and is using passenger suffering as a means of saving money.