I happened to jump on a Pendolino train at Watford the other day and what a ghastly experience it was. Of course, you are not supposed to get on at Watford when heading south, a long standing arrangement to prevent Watford commuters using InterCity trains. But it was 10pm at night and I had just watched my team, QPR, get thrashed 3 – 0 and I was in no mood to hang about Watford station especially as the Silverlink trains were running late.
I got into a quite crowded carriage full of people pretty pissed off with the fact that the train which had come from Glasgow was running an hour late, having lost time at every station for a variety of niggling reasons. But what struck me was how poky these trains are even when not completely full. Of course they have to be a bit narrower than normal trains because of the tilt but the whole feel is of being in an aircraft rather than a train.
It is not only the narrowness, but the ceiling, too, is particularly low. I had noticed this when visiting a prototype at Washwood Heath and commented upon it. I am 6ft 2 and my head can touch the top which is a bit worrying, especially if the train went over a bit of dodgy track at full pelt.
The Voyagers on the CrossCountry services are, of course, no better. Indeed, I hopped on one at Winchester the other day and the smell from the blocked toilet was so disgusting I felt sick by the time I got off at Basingstoke.
These trains have largely been specified by Virgin and yet, contrary to what Richard Branson – if I ever see him leaning on the front of train with his arms spread out ever again, I will have to be held back from doing him serious damage – suggests, the money largely comes from public sources. It certainly does not come from Virgin which merely leases the trains from rolling stock companies and those payments are largely underpinned by subsidy from taxpayers. Of course some of the reasons why these trains are so cramped have nothing to do with Virgin such as the need the ridiculous HSE specified crumple zones at the front of the Voyagers, or the need for disabled toilets – though with a bit of brain, Virgin could have just put all disabled passengers in first class, and also they did not need to design the trains for three classes which means three sets of huge toilets.
So we are lumbered with these pretty awful trains for, effectively, much of the rest of our train travelling lives (at least for those of us above 50) paid for by taxpayers but yet created and designed by a private company with short term interests. What should have been one of the success stories of privatisation may well prove be yet one more of its major disasters.
If you have had bad – or good – experiences on the new Pendolinos and Voyagers, do email me. I would be interested to hear if my views accord with yours.
By the way, my new book, The Subterranean Railway – the story of how the London Underground helped create London – is due out on November 10th. It is already being listed on Amazon – at just £12.59 – and you place an order through them now.