a public disservice

21Sep09

betjemanStuck midway between Manchester and Birmingham, and acutely aware that it can’t challenge either when it comes to shops, clubs or cultural clout, Stoke-on-Trent just gets on with life; it might not have a Dry Bar or a bobbly Selfridges, but it knows the simple pleasure of a warm oatcake shared with a good friend on the grassy piste of a recently alpinised slagheap. That said, it’s not a place you’d want to get trapped overnight, so imagine my delight when, being a regular visitor to the city (don’t ask…), I discovered the existence of the Wrexham & Shropshire Railway Company and its promise of a Virgin-free route south. Yes, rather than grudgingly allying myself with Richard Branson’s witless plan to bring to the West Coast Main Line all the trappings of international flight – not by introducing hot-air balloons, as weekend schedules might imply, but by slashing window size, natural light levels, headroom and luggage space to 737-esque proportions, then pumping the resultant cramped space full of air so over-conditioned it’s gone completely frizzy – I could now, it seemed, potter down to Wolverhampton and intercept the 16:07 Shrewsbury-London service of the Wrexham & Shropshire, the only railway company with a Facebook page: they want you to be their friend, and would pop round for tea bearing Welsh cakes and lovespoons if only they knew where you lived. They have 277 friends. Which is, curiously, the exact number of people who, on average, prise themselves out of Virgin’s pendolinos wishing they knew where Richard Branson lived.

I had underestimated the power of the Bearded One. For, once you get to Wolverhampton, the screens in the ticket hall will admit no knowledge of the 16:07. Mention it to any of the loitering staff, and they’ll simply walk away, glassy-eyed. Persist, though, because, if you’re lucky, one of the older hands – perhaps his children have left home, or he’s retiring soon anyway – will lead you through a darkened subway and, on receipt of a small trifle, point at the blue and white coaches pulled up alongside the furthest platform behind a line of tape, several coils of razor wire, and two Virgin train managers with baseball bats. “This is as far as I can take you,” he’ll whisper, “but good luck. And thanks for the trifle – I’ll put it straight in the fridge.”

The 16:07 may well stop at Wolverhampton, but it’s not allowed to pick up passengers. It can put them down, but it can’t pick them up. Wulfrunians can take a meandering local train via New Street to Tame Bridge (near Walsall), get off, wait for the 16:07 to turn up, and then get on it, but they can’t get on it at Wolverhampton because Richard Branson won’t let them: a “moderation of competition” clause in Virgin’s franchise agreement says that services between Wolverhampton and London can be run by Him and Him alone. The 16:07 provides a fast direct route from Wolverhampton to Walsall, but hopeful passengers can do nothing but wave as it pulls away. Similarly, the 16:07 isn’t allowed to stop at Birmingham, Coventry or Leamington Spa, or pick people up in Banbury (quite sensible advice that, actually, but I mustn’t get sidetracked). Virgin staff at Coventry who have their attention drawn by frazzled commuters to the 16:07 as it slips teasingly through the crowded platforms are instructed to use the Vulcan Death Grip and then feign giddiness.

“Moderation of competition”. What a great phrase. So… our railways are privatised to encourage excellence through competition, but then the independent companies aren’t allowed to actually compete. Gosh. It’s as if a perfectly decent railway system was sacrificed to a political ideology which even its proponents knew wouldn’t work in practice.

paddingtonSometimes, for variety, you’re not allowed to leave the train. Next month, I’m off to Northampton, and though London Midland will sell me a ticket to Stoke, on a train which stops at Northampton, for £7, they won’t let me get off at Northampton. If I try, I’ll be manhandled back into my seat by London Midland bouncers in satin bomber jackets. If I buy a ticket to Northampton, then I can sit in the same seat on the same train and be welcomed by the Mayor of Northampton himself with a plate of buns. But it will cost me £22.80, despite Northampton being 90 miles nearer to London than Stoke-on-Trent.

Those of us who aren’t politicians or board members don’t, of course, care whose logo is on the antimacassars when we catch a train; we simply want our train to be as fast and as comfortable and to cost just the same as the next one. Much like we don’t, on being hit by a Samsonite Spinner falling from one of Richard Branson’s tiny overhead racks, care which hospital we go to; we just want to go the nearest, and to know that it’s as good as the second nearest. We only need “choice” if the system has failed; but it’s much easier to brainwash people into regarding “choice” as something positive than it is to mend the system.

One hot July afternoon some summers ago I was standing on a crowded platform at Marseille – in France, where the railways are State-owned and non-TGV journeys are priced per kilometre – wondering, somewhat queasily, how we were all going to squeeze into the already-packed Toulouse train that had just pulled in, when I saw, at the far end of the platform, three extra, gloriously empty carriages being shunted into place. Virgin don’t do ad hoc. They can’t. If there’s no stock or staff to hand, the train is cancelled. Even if empty London Midland coaches are idling in a nearby siding, Virgin can’t use them – they’re not theirs. And when, the other Sunday, London Midland cancelled all services out of Euston because no drivers had volunteered for overtime, I couldn’t help wondering – ignoring, for a moment, terms of employment and union issues – if some Virgin drivers might have been happy to step in, if only they weren’t obliged to regard London Midland staff as competitors rather than colleagues.

Meanwhile we, the public they’re supposed to serve, continue to wait on expensively rebranded platforms as empty coaches we’re not allowed to board depart in lavish new liveries for destinations we’re not allowed to know.

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