Two weeks is a short time on the railways

I’ve been away in India for the past two weeks, where news of Britain is rare and newspapers rarer. And I eschewed the internet, for once, to have a real holiday. But what a story I missed. Certainly the phone was buzzing with requests for media interviews but I had not realised, until getting back, that the West Coast Main Line had suddenly suffered from a series of supposedly unrelated mishaps that had wrecked the timetable for much of the first working week of the year. And the fares issue rumbled on, keeping the railways in the news for all the wrong reasons.

I was sent a briefing by Network Rail on the West Coast problems and they assure me that the three collapses of the overhead wires are from unrelated issues and therefore implying it is all a coincidence. Indeed, it certainly was not the railway’s fault that an aeroplane should take out the wires in a fourth incident!

However, while i am not a conspiracy theorist, but i somewhat suspect that the strain on the line caused by the rush to finish the work and then the intensive use under the new Virgin timetable, together with the cold weather, may have had something to do with the various collapses. According to Network Rail, the first collapse last Sunday (4th January) was due to a broken screw assembly at Watford, a component that should last 30 years but failed after 20. The second the following day at Bletchley was due to a failed joint on the catenary, something that had only happened once before.  And the third, at Wembley, on the 6th – in other words three in three days! – was a result of a minor fault in installation two and a half years ago.

Network Rail has launched an inquiry to look at the ‘overhead line pantograph’ interface and I somewhat suspect that it will yield more intersting results than ‘it was all a coincidence’. Meanwhile, the railways, which are facing their most dramatic 12 months since privatisation, have started the year on the back foot. It is interesting to note that Lord Adonis has issued a press release encouraging travellers to claim compensation for their delayed or cancelled journeys.

The whole compensation issue is one that needs thorough examination. Train operators get massive compensation from the taxpayer (ie Network Rail) when something goes wrong, but they are very lax about handing out forms – or indeed information – to their passengers who get delayed. This aspect of the franchise is not, as far as I know, policed at all and it is commendable that Lord Adonis has encouraged passengers to ensure that the operators cough up. In the longer term, he should look at this issue more closely, possibly instituting a regime of fining operators which do not hand out forms.

  • Alan Pitt

    I am sure passengers delayed on the WCML are entitled to compensation but what compensation do I get, and from whom, when a lorry spills its load on the M25 and causes delays or there is an accident caused by poorly treated or maintained road surfaces? Passenger train operators build a risk factor into their fares (and similarly freight operators into their charges) to cover compensation payouts, thus increasing the cost of rail operations but it seems road users get away without such risks and are thus able to provide a cheaper form of transport. Many years ago a BR Chairman asked for a level playing field between rail and road transport, the rail user is still waiting for a fare/fair deal.

  • Kevin Steele

    Perhaps you have answered the question – when you put petrol in your car to go somewhere you take the risk that some unexpected event will happen (i.e. an incident on the road, accident, breakdown) and that you will be delayed. You have no comeback – sure you can insure yourself against the inconvenience of some things by taking out additional insurance, but by and large you are on your own.

    There is a fundamental difference that on any form of public transport however, whether it be bus, train, aeroplane and in the action of buying a ticket you have entered into a contract where the service provider has promised you that it will deliver you to your destination by a set period of time, and if the operator fails to deliver you are entitled to some form of compensation.

    It can therefore be argued, that this is why a public transport journey should be more expensive than the equivalent car journey….

  • Dan

    Good point re compo (I’m waiting for a reply from NX East Anglia following an out and back journey I took Norwich – London in early Dec which I had to curtail at Colchester due to massive delays from a major signal problem following a coper cable theft – not NXEAs fault but no doubt they got compo from Netwrok Rail so I want my percentage! – incidentally I’d booked to try their restaurant service before it was deleted – it was truly excellent – and packed dining car southbound, but they have not even acknowledged receipt of the tickets I sent in – so I’ll have to refer that to Passenger Focus to wake them up).

    Again, interestingly in Nov I was on EM Trains pre booked for breakfast (and pre paid) but the food supply sub contractor ‘forgot’ to deliver the food that morning. 40 + passengers who had all pre paid could onlyu be offered compo forms by staff having to deal with this. No doubt the contractor did not get paid, all I got were equivalent vouchers for the cost of breakfast – OK I’ll use them, but actually for complete non provision of paid for product I’d have thought money refund more appropriate. Some of those 40+ passengers will never use those vouchers I’m sure – so a few extra quid for EMT.

    In the early days of privatisation operators were quite generous about dishing out compo forms and mentioning it to travellers – that seems to NEVER happen now, and I bet most people don’t bother claiming nor bother to find out about their entitlements. So much for the much vaunted new ‘delay – repay’ regime I recall operators negotiating with DfT only the other year and being part of their new franchises!

  • Paul O

    The MD of Trans Pennine always makes an announcement when he is travelling on one of his trains and then he walks down the train and talks to passengers about any problems they would like to raise.

    I have a good service to the airport from where I live operated by Trans Pennine. Maybe its just bad luck but when I decide to go there it all falls down badly and the thing is its not Mr MD of Trans Pennines fault, its either engineering work, signaling problems, flooding or some other occurence over which he has no operational control.

    So do I talk to him when he comes down the train, apart from saying hello I don’t bother raising any issues because there is no point, his Trans Pennine Express is a sort of hollow empire and non of these issues are under his control, he’s a fat controller ( quite slim in real life ) with very little control over events. The best he can say is something like, “We are working hard with our strategic partners at Network Rail”. Which translates to, “We don’t own the track or the signals, We rent the trains and the stations, the only assets we have are our staff it’salloutside of my control really”.

    Whats this got to do with the WCML, well its the same if your a customer of Virgin, the Great Bearded one did his arse covering with a hand wringing letter to the national newspapers last year about his concerns over being able to operate a viable enhanced timtable from Dec 08 due to shortcomings at Network Rail.

    These hollow Train Operating Empires, sucking money out of the treasury are as big a scandal in this story as any maintainance shortcomings at Network Rail. They have no reason to exist.

    I’ll go and have a lie down.

  • RapidAssistant

    Well said Paul – you know I was reading Richard Branson’s latest book and paid particular attention to the bit about Virgin Rail – and whilst on the whole I’m an admirer of the bearded one in the wooly jumper, it’s still hilarious when he takes the credit for the selection of the Pendolinos and Voyagers and makes it look like Virgin stumped up the billions out of its own pocket to pay for them. In all he paints Virgin Trains as the West Coast’s saviour – when in fact the WCML modernisation was originally a BR project. I remember travelling on British Rail InterCity a few times in 1996 and the overall experience wasn’t really any worse than what it is now. (at least you went on big, airy, spacious Mark 3 carriages that didn’t have tiny windows and smelly toilets – even if they only went at 110mph……).

    In his defence he does make some good and valid points about how the lengthening of the Pendolinos has been turned into a farce by the DfT, Virgin’s loss of the CrossCountry franchise and the whole WCML modernisation saga, but overall it’s an interesting read.

  • Dan

    Paul O – interesting one – on the joureny with NX EA I was on that I mentioned above – on my much late rtn train a small group of senior managers were in the same 1st class carriage I was in heading up to Norwich for, I think a meet the manager session scheduled for that day. I know they were senior as when the chap came round to collect the litter he chatted to them in appropriate terms. In all the time I was in that carriage they certainly did not get out and about talking to other passengers on board or making themsleves high profile (or even collect the litter in the carriage when I got on – I did soem fo that! – despite the service being nearly 2 hours late (well anyway not for the time from Colchester to Norwich when I was sitting in that carriage).

    I wondered if it ever crossed their mind that this low profile technique would be reported on Mr Wolmar’s website by a witness!

  • Paul O


    Low Profile NX EA or High Profile Trans Pennine, neither have any real hands on operational control / influence of their services passage between points A & B. Its all a bit of a joke really until you realise that these guys get paid well, much better than pay in the old BR days and consequently they have no problem defending the pretend importance of their positions.

    Even train drivers pay has rocketed post BR, not because of some new found realisation that the job deserved a better rate of pay but because the structure has created a Drivers Market where companies bid against one another to attract and retain drivers that have all the relevant pieces of paper. I’m not sure what ASLEFS current position on ownership of the railway is but I’m sure if it asked its membership they wouldn’t willingly vote on anything that put them back to the BR model where they had no commercial value as a commodity and took home a very basic basic wage.

    It should be about passengers and they’d have us believe it is, but the reality is that its become one big cash cow from top to bottom and those feeding on it from the Moir Lockheeds & Brian Souters in the boardroom to the ASLEF boys at the front end plus all the others in between, non of them are going to shout for a change thats going to leave them out of pocket.

    Rapid Assistant.

    The WCML was indeed a good performer in the 1990’s before Virgin took on the franchise. In fact I remember Chris Green in an interview in Rail Mag on his return to save Virgin from complete meltdown ( In return for a mega salary increase on his old BR paypacket – as discussed in para 1 ) boasting about how they only had I think it was one WCML train delay on the last day of the old BR Inter City organisation before it was handed over to the West Coast TOC, his point I guess being that the old BR structure was good at managing old infrastructure and old infrastructure if managed properly was no excuse for poor reliability.

    Those tilting trains with cramped interiors, little windows and smelly toilets are indeed not pleasant (especially when more the 3/4 full ) to the extent that any journey time reduction is very welcome. Partly we could possibly lay the blame at Mr. Bransons door, I’ve heard it said Virgin excluded anyone with traditional railway design experience and went airline instead, it certainly looks and feels that way. But equally the fact that they tilt means they will always be narrower in guage and that tilting was in the franchise specification and my understanding is that specification was drawn up when certain MP’s in parts north of Watford looked like they might scupper the whole privatisation process if it didn’t bring about a commitment to a high speed tilting West Coast railway. ( Caught out again in the detail Mr. B – are we correct in thinking you had to do Tilt and if not then someone else who got the franchise would have had to do it instead?). I tend to look at the Pendolino as a sort of reverse Tardis, unlike the Dr Who version the Pendolino is actually significantly smaller on the inside than it is on the outside, in fact if you ever want to know what it would be like inside a high speed tilting train on the Welsh Highland Railway, you only need to take a trip on the WCML.

  • RapidAssistant

    Good points Paul – what makes it even more laughable is that when you look at the Mark 4 coaches used on the InterCity 225 sets on the East Coast – these used a lot of experience gained from the APT, and have tapered sides to allow for future tilting – yet they feel nothing like as dark and claustrophoic as the Pendolinos, and they are a darned sight more spacious as well. This old fallacy that the 390s are like that because of the need for the tilt is drivel in my opinion. I make a point these days of only travelling on VWC if I can get a cheap first class ticket to avoid being hemmed in like cattle.

  • Dan

    Paul O – I certainly agree with your analysis, but there are aspects of service TOCs can control that would improve passenger experience (and thus in theory generate more custom) and this would include some / or all of the following which are often my bug bears:
    – Interior train cleanliness (why am I often expected to travel round on a train that is bedecked with other people’s rubbish combined with age old grime that no effort is made to remove?)
    – Failure to enforce quiet zones
    – generally little effort to deal with anti social beahviour (ranges from an 8.30am (!) 25 minute leisure journey last sat filled up with football supporters equipped with tinnies and swearing profusely at each other simply made me wish I’d used my car – to the usual, but more serious ASB all too prevlant around the place.)
    – Often little effort to deal with ticket dodgers through abscence of on board checks
    – Staff who seem to do a dissapearing act when things go wrong – whether that be over crowding or delays, a retreat to the back cab rather than an ‘out and about’ aproach seems to be the norm.
    – Gradual removal of ‘quality’ on board services (esp restaurants on Inter City routes, now NXEC has slashed that service).

    I know some staff do not fit this stereotype, but I find it is all too common, and the quality is the exception, not the rule. Also tackling some of these issues is not going to be easy for the poor staff member at the sharp end, but that is not the point. This is what the TOC has taken on.

    None of these are matters outside TOC control – and presumably it was a theoretical effort to sort these sorts of quality of service issues out that decision makers might argue were part of the reasons for bringing in ‘private sector expertise’ from the franchise process (I laugh hollowly!)

    All of these are matters that TOCs could pull their fingers out and sort out if only they wanted to. I might then forgive them some of the other issues that they have difficulty resolving.

    RapidAssistant: Re the Pendolino – could not agree more. I recall taking a trip on the APT when it was on pre service test with public access and it was nothing like the Pendolino. Mk4 is, as you say, better. One can compare by visiting the APT at Crewe. Simple expediant of larger windows probably helps. Lower ceilings presumably due to Pendolino roof mounted equipment no doubt also does not help. APT did not have that. First class Pendolino does not look that great.

    Voyagers are bad too. But to show what can be done one only has to compare the interior design of the old MML Meridians which use the same body and are a massive improvement on the bearded one’s Voyagers (now no doubt made worse by XC’s recent changes).

    And nice to see FGW have found a way to ruin the HST 125 interior – due to the (no doubt DfT driven) obsession with overcrowding. Due to some parts of some journeys at soem times of day being over crowded – anyone needing to travel any other time has to be packed in like a Sardine in a largely empty carriage – and the economic down turn will probably reduce the crowding problem somewhat anyway!

    Of course the WCML modernisation was all going to be done by the private sector Railtrack without (presumably that much) public money – how we laugh now…

  • Michael Weinberg

    Virgin’s whole policy is geared to fighting the airlines on the Manchester-London route and everything else is secondary.
    I live at Milton Keynees and what was a perfectly good inter-city service to the North has gradually been whittled away under Virgin to the extent that now I have to change at Crewe for anywhere north thereof, even to Liverpool for heaven’s sake!
    We are a town of over 250,000 people and growing rapidly, but now after the expenditure of £billions, for me the service is actually slower than under BR because of the changes I now have to make.
    Add in the dreadful trains, cramped, uncomfortable and claustrophobic: the reduction of catering to a poor sandwich bar, usurious walk on fares, surly staff, no room for luggage etc and my railway experience is infinitely worse than 15 years ago.

    And these dreadful TOC’s have the nerve to tell us trains arn’t meant for people with luggage to travel on.

    Well, all the chickens will now come home to roost as the result of a plethora of bad decisions will be to drive passengers away with a vengeance. Nobody who has any alternative will use these dreadful Companies.

    The Govt. has now got the train service it deserves but as an erstwhile Labour supporter and railway enthusiast I will view the demise of both with mixed feelings!

  • RapidAssistant

    Agree with you there Michael on the obsession with Manchester-London. I live in Glasgow and I’ve noticed that it’s getting harder and harder to get the lowest Advance fares on Virgin West Coast down to Euston. Reading the “in-flight” magazine that last time I was on one of their trains there was much talk of these single figure fares between London and the North West, but no such special offers for anyone who lived further north. And although I’ve got no reason to go to MK I’ve noticed that hardly any Glasgow services on weekdays stop there now.

    It’s getting like Ryanair in a way – headline fares of next to nothing to suck people in, but then take into account in the hassle factor down to the fact that those el cheapo fares are nowhere to be seen when you need them you just end up giving up and going somewhere else – in my case the ECML or God forbid – flying on a low cost airline. Which of course, as has been said before – makes the VHF service a bit of a travesty.

    The service levels are indeed variable – far from the cry of InterCity West Coast 12 years ago when there was a full walk-in restaurant service on Scotland-London trains that was open to all passengers regardless of ticket class. I must confess I do enjoy my cooked breakfast and tipple in Virgin 1st Class (it is “free” after all….), but on my last journey down we had a really friendly and courteous Glasgow crew for the first half of the journey that were constantly walking up and down the aisles making sure no coffee cup was left needing refilled, only to be replaced by a rather surly London-based crew at Preston who, after serving lunch retreated to the kitchen after Crewe and were nowhere to be seen until they started resetting the tables for the last half hour of the journey.

  • Bluecaster

    While we are discussing Intercity and Voyagers does anyone remember the original Voyager tickets? These were issued by British Rail Intercity and could be found on the the NW/SW routes such as preston to Plymouth. They guaranteed you a seat and you received decent meals matched to the time of day. Attendants helped with your luggage and no standing passenegers were allowed. They had to be pre-booked but were somewhat cheaper than the standard fare. The attendants also made sure you could complete your journey, for instance if delays meant that the Barnstaple connection from Exeter would be missed then a taxi was provided instead. Travel was apleasure and you had no worries if someting went wrong.
    Alas, once the beared wonder took over they vanished in short order. My wife used these tickets several times to visit relaitives ‘down south’ but once they were withdrawn she gave up on the trains. We did use the NE/SW XC route this year but doubt if we ever will again. Although we travelled First Class the train was cramped, noisy and uncomfortable. As for the promised meal service – on the journey south they soon ran out of food and coming north I was told firmly “one sandwich (and there was no choice) is all you are allowed between Devon and Yorkshire”.

  • Paul O

    It’s heartening to read such universal agrement about one thing, the lack of any real long distance passenger comfort on Virgins tilting trains. I thought it was just me looking out through rose tinted spectacles like an old sentimentalist longing for the days of yore to return but it seems I’m not alone in my discomfort. All the issues I have with them are shared, Very Cramped Interiors, Very Small Windows, Very Low Ceilings and Very Smelly Toilets. It came as no surprise learn that amongst some railway staff Pendolinos have the unofficial name of SH*T CARTS.

    It’s also worth considering that the most comfortable seats with the best legroom are now in the drivng cabs at each end of the train. What a change from the old days when the most comfortable seats were in the carriages themselves and the driver sat on a piece of polished wood exposed to the elements leaning out of his semi open cab looking for signals in all weathers. Even in the days of the AC Electrics the comfort still lay with the passengers in the carriages the old locos having a basic office type seat, a drafty cab and at times a very rough ride. Such basic driver comfort brought about the term “On The Cushions” when a driver returned to or travelled out from his depot as a passenger on the train. Now we have a situation where you can pay a couple of hundred pounds to sit in the most uncomfortable seats safe in the knowledge the that best seat is being polished by a guy who is getting paid roughly the same amount as you’ve forked out for sitting in it. Such is progress.

  • Dan

    Going back to an earlier point I think I should complete the loop (and put on record) by saying just had letter from NXEA saying I would get cash refund for aborted journey (not vouchers) – so that is fair enough.

    Bluecaster – when were those Voyager fares? Was that back inthe 80s or did they survive into the ‘preparing for privatisation’ era? Sounds like just the sort of reason why some people (esp it seems some older folk) prefer coach tarvel – the fear of being ‘left to fend for yourself alone’ on the train.

    Michael – quite agree with you – who, for example, has decided that the necessity is point to point long distance non stop services (airline style)? Who asked the passengers? It is not what train travel best lends itslef too – a few intermediate stops with connections into other services makes it work better.

    Not living on west coast I’ve only been on a Pendolino Brum – Wolverhampton – enough to get the feel of it – but I’d have thought with all those excess 1st class carriages (even emptier now the recession has kicked in) they’d be having to sell plenty of adv discounted 1st class tickets? Sounds like that is not people’s experience.

  • RapidAssistant

    Bluecaster – the big problem with XC is that the Voyagers don’t have any proper kitchen facilities at all; so the notion that you could ever get any more than rationed sandwiches is a pipe dream. Remember that Virgin were mad enough to operate Aberdeen-Penzance – Britain’s longest railway journey with such meagre catering arrangements. In BR days you had an entire coach devoted to the kitchen and buffet. Perhaps Arriva XC’s reinstatement of HSTs on the longest routes (hooray!) will make amends.

    Pendolino doesn’t fare much better – the “kitchen” only makes up one quarter (at most) of the leading coach, and that has to supply four potentially full 1st class carriages. At least they do proper meals up to a point, and to be fair any time I’ve been on it the food’s been decent. As far as I am aware the food is pre-prepared and merely heated up on the train.

    Dan – yes as I say getting harder and harder to get cheap fares – even if you hit the 12 week window on Virgin nowadays the cheapest Advance fares simply aren’t available on Fridays, yet train-for-train a similarly timed Scotland-London East Coast service will have good deals on even 6 weeks in advance. I managed to pick up Dundee-King’s X for £11 one way last year with just 5 weeks to spare. On a Friday. By this time Virgin were only offering fares at full whack.

  • Bluecaster

    Dan – I’m not sure when the fares started but they did survive the first few months of privatisation. If a rail company says “we don’t serve food on the train, bring your own” at least we know where we stand. But to look at XC’s website you would think First Class passengers were offered a sort of ross between Gordon Ramsey and a mobile Ritz dining room!
    Luckily my wife is a rail cynic. She produced a load of fruit bars and bottled water from her bag, for which I was very grateful!
    Re Advance fares. I have on occasion checked the computer every hour or so around the 12-week deadline. One thing I’ve learned is book your outward journey as soon as it appears – if you wait for the return it will have gone up a lot! The times these fares appear can be most odd – around 11am one Saturday morning was the most unlikely. But I’m retired and can do this – we shouldn’t have to play these silly games.
    What’s the food like on FGW First Class – I might go via London to Devon next time?

  • Dan

    Hi Bluecaster – FGW food is good – BUT ONLY on the trains with what they call ‘Pullman Dining’ – this is the proper restaurant car service open to 1st and standard passengers in the traditional way (usually just on the named trains). They have cut back on this significantly since BR days. Other trains have what they call ‘Travelling Chef’ – not tried this but it looks more like ‘heat and eat’ than proper dining car.

    Given the way they have wrecked interiors of HST 125s (narley all airline seats crammed on – and what table seats their are do not align with windows properly) you might want to book advance first class though.

    If you check their printed titmetabels (or download a pdf copy) it is the services with a ‘p’ at the top of the column.

    according to their website:

    These are the services (to Devon, one lunch time and 2 eves) – and I’m not sure they do more than one sitting:

    Pullman breakfast is available on the following services:
    06.30 Swansea to Paddington
    06.55 Plymouth to Paddington
    Pullman Lunch and Dinner is available on the following services:
    11.45 Paddington to Swansea
    12.00 Plymouth to Paddington
    12.05 Paddington to Plymouth
    12.55 Plymouth to Paddington
    18.03 Paddington to Plymouth
    19.05 Paddington to Plymouth

    “Pullman Dining services are open to all ticket holders although on busy services priority is given to First Class ticket holders. Please contact the Pullman Service Leader when you board to request a table in the restaurant. Pullman Dining services do not operate on weekends or public holidays. “

  • RapidAssistant

    As Christian says then – it’s becoming like Ryanrailways…….

  • Bluecaster

    Dan – thanks for info. I think I have got it cracked. Go to Hull on local train. Then overnight ferry to Zeebrugge using Commodore Class and dining at Lannigan’s Brasserie (breakfast is included). Local to Ghent, then by best route to Roscoff. Overnight ferry to Plymouth. Finally train Plymouth – Exeter. Might even cost less than a peak-hour first York to Exeter!
    Seriously though I should like to try going by London but there are a lot of difficulties for a disabled traveller with a scooter. Perhaps one day some genius will manage to get the platforms and the carriages at the same level, like on the Newcastle Metro.

  • Dan


    Could be a good plan – but I see the last leg to Roscoff is by bus (Ghent – Brussels – Paris – Morlaix) as per the ever helpful european timetable supplied by the germans :

    Incidentally – can anyone imagine the UK rail industry providing an on line Europe wide timetabel service!!…In fact it is more than Europe – as you can do York – Vladivostock according to this in 202 hours – in Germany it even tells you what platform the train will depart from (Moscow overnight train leaves Platform 7 at Cologne tonight!)

  • RapidAssistant

    I was trying to get a return ticket from Euston to Glasgow for April the other week, and I was hoping for the first time in years that I’d be able to get a straight run through with no diversions. Guess what? No tickets to be had anywhere, only full fare (now £107 – ouch!) and the journey involved two connections and a replacement bus. Then I discovered this article in my local evening news:

    So the West Coast Main Line upgrade was supposed to be finished??

    Fat Chance!