Rail 632: Was National Express collapse inevitable?


Superficially, the demise of the National Express East Coast franchise has been a fairly straightforward story. Company overbids, starts losing money, asks for more, gets turned down and walks away. An everyday story of railway folk.

 Except it isn’t that simple. At every stage, there have been political decisions that have determined the outcome of this saga and which will have longer term repercussions for the industry. And there are a lot of curious aspects of this affair which need explaining.

 Let’s start with the initial breakdown of negotiations. The Department had to be seen to be holding firm given its stance about not renegotiating franchises. Yet, on a couple of other franchises – Great Western and East Anglia – new deals were recently negotiated which involved extra ‘investment’ and changes to the franchise payment profile. In the case of East Anglia, this involved the incorporation of 186  new and cascaded coaches into the franchise, which, of course, involved extra leasing costs, making the precise costs of the deal very difficult to analyse. On Great Western, the cap and collar scheme – which limits the liability of the company – were brought forward because of a lack of clarity over the precise nature of the previous contractual terms.

 Therefore it may well have been feasible for the Department to have offered Richard Bowker, the then head of National Express, a way out of the hole he had dug so adeptly for himself. It would have been difficult because of the risk that it would open the floodgates to other applicants, but there were no insuperable difficulties.

 However, once the door was shut on National Express, the next issue was over cross default. There is no doubt from the strong words that Lord Adonis has repeatedly used about National Express that he would like to take back its other two franchises. In Parliament – and in an interview I conducted with him for a BBC Inside Out programme recently – he made very clear that he found it unacceptable that National Express should be able to continue making profits on its other two franchises after having defaulted on East Coast. However, it is clear that his officials – before his time, of course – allowed NEx to use a subsidiary for the franchise which meant that cross default would always be a difficult option to pursue. Adonis is clearly infuriated by this but NEx is very confident that he will not be allowed to impose cross default – which actually, may get him off the hook as trying to find alternative franchisees may well have proved difficult.

 Which brings us neatly to the core issue, the attitude of the Labour government to franchising. There has been very contradictory messages. On the one hand, Adonis has tried to make clear that this is a temporary renationalisation and that it will definitely be ended after two years. On the other, there is a very different feel to this franchise takeover than on the last occasion a franchise was in public ownership when the SRA finally lost patience with Connex SouthEastern. Then, it was a muted affair, with a new team being quietly installed and allowed to run it for the minimum amount of time that it took to organise the refranchising.

 Not this time. First, there is the commitment that East Coast will be in public hands for two years. Then there is the appointment of a high profile railway manager, Elaine Holt to run it and the immediate rebranding exercise with a sensible new name (which suggests that all franchise should have a generic name which the operator would have to use, obviating the kind of chaos which the same Ms Holt created on First Capital Connect where she insisted on rebranding the Thameslink trains, much to the confusion of passengers).

 Most notable, though, was the fuss made over the takeover. We had press releases, Lord Andrew Adonis giving interviews and even a special train (with, according to a railway manager I spoke to at the station, another ghost one four minutes behind to pick up the minister and his entourage if anything went wrong). This was canny political stuff, playing to supporters of renationalisation but yet trying to keep the industry on board by saying that there were no plans to keep it in the public sector permanently.

 This is where it gets interesting, though. When, at a chance meeting, I questioned Adonis about why the government was not holding on to the franchise permanently, he answered that his legal advice was that it could be only kept in the public sector for a maximum of two years but after that ‘it would be open to legal challenge’. So I asked for chapter and verse on this since, having followed the privatisation saga since 1993, I recollected that during the passage of the legislation, the Tories had conceded, in an amendment tabled by a former Conservative minister, Lord Peyton, that British Rail would have the right to bid for franchises in order possible to keep some in the public sector. In fact, the then franchising director, Roger Salmon, got round that by immediately imposing a ban on British Rail from bidding for the early franchises, but I had not realised that this aspect of the legislation had been rescinded.

 Moreover, Adonis’s position had been set out in a response to the report by the Transport Select Committee on franchising which said: ‘It is not within the Secretary of State’s gift to retain the franchise in public ownership without a change in legislation.’ This suggests that it is now impossible for a franchise to be held permanently in the public sector.

 However, none of the numerous responses from the Department for Transport managed to give any evidence to the effect that the government could no longer hold on permanently to a franchise. The press office kept on referring me to sections 23 and 25 of the original act, and at one point sent me pages of incomprehensible and irrelevant amendments. However, when I sent this to no fewer than two people expert in the law, they both agreed with me that the DfT had provided nothing to back up its evidence to the select committee. Section 24, not mentioned by the press office, specifically says that parts of the railway do not need to be designated for franchising and that is at the discretion of the Secretary of State.

 Therefore the Department seem to be making this up as it is going along. I am not, here, debating the merits or otherwise of the franchising system, but merely highlighting Labour’s dishonesty on this issue. If Labour politicians think, as clearly most do, that running the railways privately is the best way to do it, then why don’t they have the courage to say that and defend their position rather than hiding behind legal opinions and interpretations of obscure legislation which are open to question. Right from the days when Tony Blair promised a return to a publicly owned, publicly accountable, a promise he never remotely intended to keep, Labour has refused to come clean on its policy. I remember Alistair Darling dishonestly saying it would cost £20bn to renationalise the railways in response to a union motion at the Labour party conference in 2005 that merely said take back the franchises when they ended, a proposal that would not cost any money.

 Lord Adonis seems to have been misled by advisers who have told him that the government could only run the franchise for two years before a legal challenge (from whom?) is likely. If Labour’s position is that we should never return to any nationalised operations, then that should be made clear (and so should, of course, the fact that actually we have a renationalised infrastructure provider, Network Rail which ministers pretend is a private company).  Given that Labour’s hold on office is tenuous and that the party is unlikely to be in power after May, all this can be seen as irrelevant. It is not for two reasons. First, many in the private sector would be reassured that Labour has finally abandoned any notion of renationalising the railways. And secondly, those who support the idea of recreating British Rail would make sure that they did not vote for Labour.

 Visions that the renationalisation of the East Coast would bring about an instant change in its culture were punctured rather quickly. I had travelled up north with Lord Adonis on the inaugural press train, and then taken the opportunity to visit my daughter in Hull, returning on the last train of the day from Doncaster. I had a special rather ersatz looking ticket given to me by the press office and showed that when the guard finally came round to collect tickets at around Finsbury Park.

 ‘That’s not valid sorry sir’, he said. I then produced my specially typed letter from the press office: ‘That’s just an email’, he said ‘anyone could print that off.’

 My explanations about it being a press trip fell on deaf ears and he suggested I get my credit card out and pay. No way, I said, you will have to issue me with a notice and he did. But when he asked for my address, I gave him my card and he said ‘ah, anyone could print that off, do you have proper ID,’ and when I demurred, added: ‘I’m not being difficult?’ I stayed cool – with effort – and merely said, ‘oh yes you are’ and showed him my Freedom Pass. ‘We don’t accept those’, he said… I gave up speaking to him and simply pocketed the notice, knowing the press office would be mortified. Which they were.

 It was a rather salutary return to a nationalised railway then, but as the Virgin story outlined in the last issue (and now resolved as the accompanying article shows) these things can happen in both public and private sectors – in essence, customer service on the railways is all down to the individual staff and their training. Hopefully both East Coast and Virgin will be running a few lessons in customer relations.




Virgin Victory


I have won my little fight with Virgin whose guard made me buy an extra ticket because I could not extract my previously purchased one from the ticket machine. As I mentioned in my last column, I had been given the wrong code number by a travel agent and did not have time before getting the train to find the right one.

 While the ticket inspector (who was of ‘the customer is always wrong’ school) had promised I could get fully reimbursed, Virgin’s first response addressed to an I Olmar (I have terrible handwriting) was tough luck, we are keeping your money even though you have paid for the journey twice and we know that. However, the second response, addressed to C Wolmar, was we were right but here is your £69 back because we recognise that this was a special case. So victory, but I do wonder whether the name change prompted the change in attitude? Sadly, we will never know.

  • James Johnson

    When I used to use the fast ticket machines at Leeds station (most recently around 3 or 4 years ago), I found that if you entered your credit/debit card first, you simply had to enter your PIN and it would just give you your ticket. However if you went through the ‘correct’ options on the screen, it forced you to enter the reference number, which of course then needed to be correct. I imagine they have tightened up their security since then.

  • Stephen

    It is a sad story that customer service on the TOC’s is pretty much a total chance. You can get great service (as on my recent trip on Virgin Trains, from all on board staff), or utterly ridiculous and awful service (my recent encounter with East Midland Trains customer service centre – who sent out my tickets in a postal strike, then refused to issue duplicates, or allow me to pick up new tickets from a station or machine! All of this for a ticket they could not resell, as it was a reserved seat. And 1st class. Unlike their service). Privitisation has bought very little benefit to the railways, for enourmous cost, customer confusion and impossible to understand ticketing. Just imagine what we could have had for the same money spent in the public sector?

  • RapidAssistant

    I happened to be on East Coast just before Christmas – albeit just on the Highland Chieftain for a quick half hour Stirling-Perth hop (the scheduled ScotRail service was cancelled….), and what struck me was how much of a sticking plaster job the temporary franchise is. The train had been delayed leaving London six hours earlier due to the snow, and for all sorts of niggling reasons had lost nearly 45 minutes in the journey so far. Disgruntled customers, staff shortages and clearly no-one had bothered to clean the carriage or clear litter away for most of its 400 mile journey. It looked like something you would see in India to be honest…..on that short experience I am not holding my breath for any improvements.

    It’s interesting that Adonis talks about looking at fares, but the publicity that’s came from EC so far just seems to be continuing NXEC – promises of ultra cheap Advance fares and the like. Of course in my experience they never are available on the service you want them these days – and that is even when you are sitting fastidiously next to your PC when the clock strikes 12 weeks exactly until the travel date. It backs up what me and a few of my mates who travel long distance on the railways have noticed during the recession – that TOCs have been quetly increasing fares by stealth. Over the last year, Virgin and NXEC removed the lowest tier of First Class Advance fares, at the same time reducing the level of service. A friend of mine recently travelled on EC from London to Edinburgh at the weekend and had to ask the train guard about 1st Class weekend upgrades. They were indeed available – for £20, yet they weren’t advertised anywhere on NXEC’s website, and East Coast aren’t any different.

    On a side note – Virgin also quietly dropped its 10% discount on Advance fares for Virgin credit card holders a couple of months ago.

    On Stephen’s point – E-ticketing would be an obvious answer to the problem, but hard to implement on trains simply because there isn’t the level of tracking. We accept it as routine on airlines, but then our authenticity is checked at least three times between the check-in desk and the gate. E-ticketing is used on the Caledonian Sleepers to Scotland, and whilst an email confirmation is easy to forge, it is checked against a passenger manifest at the platform before being allowed on the train. We could implement some electronic system to manage this, but that would mean universal adoption of ticket gates and perhaps similar apparatus on the trains themselves and we’ve already seen how much opposition there is towards this. A tough one.

  • Dan

    Good points Rapid – I think the message with East Coast is certainly mixed – just before Xmas I used their services from York to Newark – both ways. On board litter collections happened as they should, and I was pleased to hear southbound the restaurnat car clearly advertised to std class passengers (although the ‘last call’ was being advertised on dep from York when the catering timetable on their website clearly gives the last call as Peterborough).

    On the 1st point of Christian’s article – does the fact that Adonis is actually keenly interested in rail explain the approach taken with East Coast and the publicity that ensued? I bet that is a part of it. On the 2nd (and more important point) about his attitude and Labour’s to nationalisation – I seem to recall he was once in the SDP – so is probably pre-disposed to the view that ‘ideally if you can make the private sector do it properly it will be better’ school of thought.

    New Year’s fare rises show more of the private sector poor service in action – Radio 4 (yesterday’s You and Yours transmission) highlighting London Midland introducing XC style evening peak restrictions on cheap day return type tickets with massive increased fares as a result (plus masses more confusion on route – fare setting as Barry Doe will no doubt point out). ‘Average fares increases’ being trotted out by ATOC – who is interested in averages? It’s the fares on the services you use that are important!

    I noted (sadly) that Adonis was ‘off the radar’ on both the Eurostar debacle and the January fares increases….

  • Dan

    Further to my last post this article by Lord Adonis in The Times may put some light on his thinking re Christian’s question on the privatisation issue:

    But it is in itself rather intriguing – in that he claims innovation is poss by the private sector in air travel – yet fails to mention the private sector’s general inability to deliver it on rail! (which starts me thinking as to why the TOCs are largely bus industry and why no airlines got very far on rail (apart from Virgin Trains which is in reality of course a bus industry backed airline ‘brand’, and whose customer service as detailed by Christian elsewhere is a way away from the ideal Branson would have you believe).

    “Generally new trains, on new lines, are run by the same old incumbent state railway monopolies. So we have not seen the innovative pricing strategies or alternative service offerings that we now take for granted in aviation.”

    (note he DOES not say – ‘that we now take for granted on our private rail system’!!)
    He goes on:

    “There are important differences between rail and aviation and it cannot be claimed that the UK’s experience of rail privatisation has been an unqualified success. The fundamental mistake of the last Tory Government was to destroy British Rail rather than to encourage competition and innovation alongside it.”

    So does this mean the Lord Adonis model is to have the state provider ‘improved’ by competition from open access? Interesting, and may be it could have been done – a sort of modest privatisation that would not have satisfied the free market zealots of the Tory Party at the time I suppose? Is this what he is trying for on East Coast – perhaps sort of in reverse?

    The full article is here:

    Of course it is rather worrying that he seems to think the innovation in the airline industry is worth emulating – for those of us who actually like space, comfort and service (even in standard class) which private and state owned rail operators seemed happy to provide up to circa 1990 I’m now not so optimistic about whether I’d want to sit on one of these HS trains after all…

    I’d be interested in other contributors thoughts.

  • RapidAssistant

    Think you’ve hit the nail on the head Dan when you say that Adonis’ ideal model is that we should have a state run BR-type organisation to run the regulated services which are directly within the public interest, with any spare slack in the network being exploited by open access operators. That’s how I’d like to see it. But there again I’d argue that the idea of open access will always be fanciful, as there simply isn’t as much capacity as politicians would like to think. The main trunk routes are already full enough with their current traffic levels – demonstrated whenever there is the slightest hiccup on the ECML or WCML, and most long distance journeys have to use one of them at some point.

    The problem with the privatised railway is that true competition cannot exist because for the most part, there is only one possible route between two points (and hence only one possible operator). The limitations of the fares and ticketing system (at the end of the day, still rooted in BR-era “technology” which has been around for nearly 30 years) will also make it difficult to allow seamless transition from regulated to open access operators on the same route without getting someone’s back up (witness the debacle between GNER and Grand Central a few years ago), or being so unworkable that it only compounds the ludicrous fares structure that we currently have.

    PS: I’ll take back my comment earlier in this thread about Virgin’s withdrawal of its 10% discount to users of its credit card – looked today and the link has ‘mysteriously’ reappeared on both the Virgin Trains and Virgin Money websites! Was that an oversight when the formers’ website was redesigned or did someone twig that maybe they’d gone too far. Hmmmmm…….

  • Dan

    Good points Rapid – so maybe he’s thinking more along the lines of Stagecoach’s early foray into attaching a carriage or 2 to the Scottish BR sleeper train? I recall that worked well!

    Matthew Engel relates an amusing story on this in 11 Minutes Late (good read BTW) – how the then Tory Rail Minister joined this service at its launch to promote private enterpise, but then after a reasonable period sloped off down to the (nationalised) sleeping car to get a decent bed for the nigh!

  • David Sterratt

    Re tickets, I have stopped collecting tickets from ticket machines since I put in my debit card and retrieved someone else’s ticket! Luckily there was time for me to post the wrong ticket back and get the correct ticket posted to me.

    Re nationalised railways, there is currently a Number 10 petition to “Bring back British Rail”, which can be accessed at http://bringbackbritishrail.org . Even if you disagree with the precise sentiment, the site worth looking at for its stylish take on the old BR corporate image.

  • RapidAssistant

    Thanks for this David, I’ve just joined the Facebook group for BBBR.

    And I’m going to order the T-shirt as well!

  • David Sterratt

    That’s great, RapidAssitant! Have you signed the petition too? I notice that there are 4000+ people in the Facebook group, but only 1,146 people who have signed the petition itself. The T-shirt does look cool.

  • RapidAssistant

    David – no probs. I made a point of sending out an scattergun email to everyone in my address books explaining the petition and why they should sign up to the campaign. I signed up to the petition as well.

    I do actually love the old BR typeface (Rail Alphabet) – hats off to the TOCs that have kept it as some of the typography used (London Midland’s one has to be the worst) is just plain ghastly – it’s garish and simply cannot be read from a distance or on a moving train. Nice to see that Rail Alphabet has finally been digitised into TTF format so that it can finally be used on people’s PCs! I suspect that’s how they were able to do the website and the T-shirts.

    Funny how some people have criticised getting the logo the wrong way around – apparently under the BR corporate identity manual it was “correct” to do this when it was on the starboard side of the funnel of a Sealink ship (in line with maritime practice in that flags should be shown back to front on the starboard side) – anyway that’s my anorakey bit over for today!

  • David

    RapidAssistant’s comment reminds me of an incident at Doncaster Works in 1966 or thereabouts.

    As some of you will no doubt remember, the BTC’s first symbol was a “mono-cycling lion”, and this was displayed on locos and DMU/EMU power cars with the legend “British Railways” written across the centre. But there were two versions of this; one had a left facing lion, the other a right facing one, and they were always affixed with the lion facing forwards on a steam loco, and towards the cab on a DMU/EMU.

    A new BTC symbol emerged in about 1958 – the “ferret and dartboard” one. This was produced in two general types; for locos, it was placed centrally between “British” and “Railways”, and for DMUs, EMUs, and coaching stock it was within a roundel, with “British Railways” printed round its edge. Initially, the loco badge was in two types like the original design, and was always affixed facing forward; this didn’t last for long, and after a short period only symbols with the “dartboard” to the left of the “ferret” were used (as on most locos preserved in their BR livery today).

    After the creation of the BRB, the corporate livery was introduced, and initially some DMUs/EMUs were painted in rail blue with a small yellow warning panel; and the double-arrow symbol. The first vehicle to be so painted at Doncaster was a Derby Heavyweight, and as the new pre-masked transfers were not available, they painted the symbol on by hand; and for some reason the paint shop foreman decided that the top > should always face the front, so on the nearside cab door it was painted <!

    Just like the Bring back British Rail symbol.

  • Maurice Hopper

    Dear Christian,

    I write with regard to your piece in Rail 632, and the validity of a piece of paper.

    It reminded me of an incident witnessed by my wife travelling on a restricted FGW late afternoon train from London to Exeter, some years ago. A family – grandmother, mother and daughter in a pushchair, joined the train at Reading. When the conductor came round, they were told their tickets were not valid on this train. They showed the conductor the print out of train times given by the issuing office. He was not impressed and demanded a large amount of money which the family did not have. Voices were raised and the quality of language declined as the threat of calling the police was made. The family intending to travel beyond Exeter, were turned off at Taunton. My wife was sorry she did not pay for them to be able to travel to their destination on a cold, wet winter’s night.

    This particularly unpleasant conductor seems to left the service of FGW (at least we have not seen him recently), but I wonder how much damage was done to the company’s image by this one part of their “customer service interface”. Did he get commission on his extra takings?

    With kind regards

    Maurice Hopper

    PS I am much impressed with your “Subterranean Railway”.

  • G. Tingey

    Maurice Hooper @13
    The correct thing to do, IF you have the “bottle”, re. the FGW fiasco is to refuse to move, and say “okay the train’s going no further – that’s YOUR fault, idiot!”
    Two sets can play at bliff, after all ….
    As for NXEC, Christian’s reference to Bowker is the give-away.
    Two years ago, (?) he gave a lecture at the I. MEch. E.
    It was a disaster – he was stuck in a just post-Serpell time-warp.
    I raised the word “electrification” and he rubbished the idea – he was only concerned with managing failure.
    Well, he succeeded!

  • RapidAssistant

    What we really need is a website or something which documents all these horror stories and is extremely visible to the those in charge of the rail industry. The current softly softly approach just isn’t working.

    The problem is the travelling public are as hopeless themselves as the railway industry at clubbing together and speaking up with a common voice to force change.
    Someone desperately needs to push reform to this discredited fares system.

  • Ben Oldfield

    On the validity of a computer printout instead of a ticket, both Stena and Irish Ferries accept a computer print out as permission to travel. At the check-in they just check it against their list and issue a card ticket.

  • Dan

    Ben – yes this can work (sleeper trains do this) but for more wide use it requires passenger lists for trains for at least those named. Can’t see how this could work with UK services where you could easily have several hundred pre booked on a IC train with such tickets, and ability to get on and off, get on wrong train etc. Obviously it is not insurmountable, but there we are.

    You come across this in USA / Canada – where they won’t let people onto platforms until trains ready for boarding, then they check passenger names against lists etc (after you all stand in a queue in a departure area for ages) often 2 – 3 times. It can work with 1 slow train a day (and may have been north american practice dating from the 50s etc, and possibly where airlines got the habit from originally) but you can’t operate an hourly interval UK style intercity service pattern in that way. I guess there are other solutions though?

    Rapid is right, and Pass Focus should take a tougher lead here. But websites complaining about TOCs and how they work often end up looking like ‘moan sites’ eg the Northern Rail one flagged on here not so long ago, ‘firstcrapitalconnect’ flagged on Nigel Harris blog recently is a bit better.

    The industry is hopeless on this sort of stuff, but then guards must get fed up, as there are so many obvious chancers trying it on too (when you get an easy target I suspect it is easy to go OTT), the excuses you hear even as a fellow passenger are often ridiculous (or the habitual fare dodgers even amongst the respectable, as I have posted here before) and this does not help).

    But the fares system is in disrepute as a result of all of this. That is now clear I think.

  • RapidAssistant

    As I’ve said in other threads – the fundamental problem here is that the “engine” of the reservation, fares and ticketing system is still basically an evolution of the near 30-year old APTIS system developed by BR. And although I don’t know all the ins and outs of it, surely this is a limiting factor in what you can reform? I’m looking for industry readers to confirm this here……

    The basic design of the tickets hasn’t changed since 1984 them easy to forge these days with some fairly rudimentary “Photoshoppery”. The Bargain Berths on the Scottish sleeper trains do indeed use emailed tickets, but as Dan says these are manually checked against a passenger manifest before you are allowed on the train.

    But here’s an idea – aircraft boarding passes have for quite a few years now used 2D barcode technology to authenticate passengers’ identity which can easily be transmitted on an email and can be printed out at home, or can be displayed on a mobile phone screen, to be read by a portable scanner. And 2D barcodes are impossible to casually forge as well. There you go; an off-the-shelf technology that surely could be adopted with a bit of investment by ATOC to issue duplicate tickets to the legitimate purchaser.

    But then, they aren’t really interested in anything that will either force TOCs to co-operate or invest any serious cash….

  • Dan

    Maybe could get Adonis to pay for this for East Coast – then the rest of the industry could get it at ‘taxpayer’s expense’ as it were. That’s how to do it to overcome Radip’s last sentence!

  • RapidAssistant

    I’ve just had a quick squizz through EC’s website, and there have been a few quiet improvements – I may be eating humble pie after (3) above as there are some ‘green shoots’ appearing through the mud;

    – they have reformed parking charges
    – you get more free stuff in First Class
    – more is being made of the restaurant cars
    – there is now a mention of Weekend First (lost in the context a little, but better than nothing!)

    Got a couple of Edinburgh-London trips booked in the next month or two, one in Standard, the other in First so looking forward to see if things have indeed got any better.

  • Bananananaman

    ATOC do have a barcode standard and this is being looked at by a number of TOCs – East Coast amongst them. I believe that ‘print at home’ tickets with 2D barcodes, being read by some sort of handheld barcode scanner is on the cards in the not too distant future. Watch this space…

  • RapidAssistant

    I know that NX bashing has almost become a rail enthusiasts’ pastime these days (I’m thinking all the flak they took about catering cutbacks), but I was watching Gordon Ramsay’s latest show on C4 on the old Sky+ box last night, and he’s touring India on a culinary mission – the other night he was doing a stint as a chef on the buffet car on a transcontinental train.

    Despite the primitive kitchens on the trains, the dangerous working conditions for the chefs in that the stoves were not tied down and they themselves were being thrown in the coach around like rag dolls in a spin dryer – they produce such an amazing and quality standard of food for a low price. He makes the point that if you were travelling on a long distance train in Britain, on-train catering is an awful burger reheated in a microwave (and charged £3.50 for the privilege). Really worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.

    Harking back to the early days of privatisation when GNER famously donated a British Rail burger to the NRM to celebrate the end of dismal railway food we really have gone backwards in the last few years. Then we had NXEC’s pathetic excuses. Other countries can serve up a decent and cheap meal on a train – why can’t we???