When I were a lad, I used to get taken to stay with relatives near Louth in Lincolnshire. Those trips are among the best memories of train rides during my childhood, and to this day I remember the ‘station stops’ at Peterborough, Spalding (did the tennis balls come from there?) and Boston, and the redbrick station at Louth where we were picked up.
The closure of the line built by the Great Northern through Lincolnshire was one of the great errors of the Beeching era. While it went through a relatively sparsely populated area, it was still a lifeline and its closure must have contributed to the general deprivation and poverty of the county.
My regular trips there sometimes included a football match at Grimsby, then generally a relatively good second division team, above my own QPR who were then permanent fixtures of the third division. Therefore I have a soft spot for Grimsby whose decline as a team – they are now in the Conference – is a reflection of the poverty of the area. Despite having a very pro-rail MP Austin Mitchell for nearly 40 years until last year’s election, Grimsby has, what reader John Nicholson describes, the ‘worst train service in Britain’.
While there may be some contenders for this unwanted accolade, Mr Nicholson has a point. Grimsby and the adjoining Cleethorpes is a substantial conurbation, with a population of 135,000 bigger than Exeter and York. Yet unlike those towns which have fantastic services to and from London, Grimsby has no direct trains to the capital and the 142 mile journey takes around three hours with one change. Even Lincoln, far smaller than the Grimsby/Cleethorpes conurbation, has twice the number of passengers because it has a far better service. Nor is the trip to London cheap – as often happens with such journeys involving more than one operator, there seemed to be no advance fares on offer for a morning trip to the capital when I looked.
Mr Nicholson outlines numerous failings of the service. He says : ‘The route through Scunthorpe carries the twin town’s principal service, the hourly Trans Pennine service between Cleethorpes and Manchester Airport. It is painfully slow east of the Doncaster area (Thorne Junction) from where line speed is 55mph to Wrawby Junction thence 60mph on to Cleethorpes;. Moreover, there have been many cancellations recently because of ‘staff shortages’ which FirstGroup, the operator, blames on an union dispute. The stations are rundown, barrow crossings have been scrapped without replacement bridges and many trains are operated by one or two carriages, This means that in the summer TransPennineExpress often warn that the 1626 from Cleethorpes is only two coaches and people returning from a day trip should travel on an alternative service. So much for the railway trying to get people out of their cars!
The branch to Barton is served by a single coach Class 153 and serves several villages, but the timetable makes it impossible for people commuting into the town to use. And the erstwhile main line carries the infamous Saturdays only service of three train pairs between Cleethorpes and Sheffield via Gainsborough (of which much has been written recently in Rail)
Is there any hope for the future? HS3, whatever that is, will miss out the railways south of the Humber and worse there has been a recent lost opportunity. Over Xmas, there was a major resignalling project but apart from a small section between Scunthorpe and Wrawby Junction, no review of line speeds was undertaken and the Barton branch was ‘descoped’ from the scheme.
Is it any wonder, therefore, that Grimsby/Cleethorpes is so deprived and rundown. There was widespread speculation that its poverty would lead to a UKIP victory in election but in the event Labour retained the seat with an increased share of the vote but UKIP nearly crept into second place. All in all, Mr Nicholson’s description and my own experience of the local railways when I used them a couple of years ago, is of the type of attitude that preceded closures under BR days. Fortunately, closures are now not politically feasible but If we had a railway planning system, then improving services in a ‘total route modernisation’ way would be a priority. There would be scope for a metro type service using the local stations to bring people into the town centres. But that would all require investment and it is all a very long way from London or even the so-called Northern Powerhouse which seems to be Manchester. So, alas, dream on and Mr Nicholson has probably got little to look forward to.
Travel for disabled people – better but still not good enough
I recently spent an afternoon travelling round the London transport network with a wheelchair user and blogger, Alan Benson, to discover the difficulties and obstacles to making it easier. Alan, who has travelled by rail ever since first needing a wheelchair 20 years ago, has had some pretty bad experiences in his time, getting left on trains beyond his intended arrival station because no one was available to help him off and once even ending up in sidings. However, he is the first to admit that things have got better since the days when he would share draughty guards vans with mailbags, rattling bicycles that threatened to fall on top of him and bad tempered guards.
However, they are still not good enough though that is not the fault of the staff who were helpful and solicitous on our journey from Waterloo to Green Park, via train, bus and Underground. Indeed, from the woman who helped him on the train at Waterloo to the charming young man at Green Park, the attitude of the staff was really heartwarming.
On our journey, as it happens, nothing went wrong. On previous trips with VIPs such as the Tory candidate for London mayor, Alan’s MP Zac Goldsmith, there have been various mishaps such as buses flashing by because the driver is unwilling to pick up a disabled passenger or staff not being available to help him off trains. Buggies are a particular bugbear. When I was a Dad with young children, we had strollers that folded up and cost £15 or so. Now parents parade their children in something that is more a cross between a Sherman Tank and a tractor, which means that getting on public transport for the likes of Alan is tough if they have got in first, despite the fact that the rules are in his favour.
On the railway, however, the main problem as he put it is ‘the stress of uncertainty’. While good experiences outnumber bad, the prospect of a bad journey deters many disabled people from using the railways. This would be helped by better training as train operating staff mostly only get a half day’s induction about the special needs of disabled people.
There are, too, many daft rules and regulations around both stations and trains that are not consistent and that could do with, as he suggests, independent scrutiny to make them simpler and understandable. For example, at Hammersmith on the two adjoining platforms used respectively by the District and Piccadilly lines, London Underground will not allow a ramp to be used for the District Line trains as it is reckoned there is not sufficient width. However, staff will provide a ramp to lower wheelchair users into the Piccadilly trains. Alan has tried for years to try to get this ban ended. So Alan has taken to carrying round his own ramp, a fantastic piece of kit that costs more than £300 because it is so lightweight. Indeed, though very expensive, it would surely be worthwhile for various train operators to purchase these ramps, since they are possible for any staff member to handle, not just the strong ones.
And finally, there is the issue of infrastructure. Journeys for disabled people are often far slower than for the able bodied because the equipment is so primitive. I watched as Alan was taken up on a platform lift from the platform at Twickenham – a station that incidentally is in a pretty shameful state with a ghastly corrugated roof with grass growing on it despite the ‘tarting up’ for last year’s Rugby World Cup. The assistant was, again, very helpful, but it took us ten minutes to get out of the station – after a 25 minute journey!
The key point is that the industry needs to ‘think disabled’. Not all disabled users are in wheelchairs, but there are huge numbers of them and that is set to grow with an ageing and often unfit population. Many managers could start by going for a trip like I did – they will learn a lot.