TRUE DISASTER STORIES
For over a year, readers have sent Christian Wolmar stories from the Great Railway Disaster, now collected in book form. Here are some highlights
Sunday 26 May 1996
The sight of locomotives being hauled slowly and perilously along motorways is becoming more frequent since the break-up of the railways. A dozen readers sent in accounts of the recent move of an InterCity 125 locomotive from Plymouth, which was being taken 250 miles for a refit at Crewe. Instead of being towed by another locomotive on the rails, the engine was being sent by lorry on a journey taking three days. Railtrack charges so much for access to the rail network that it was cheaper for the repairers, ABB, to transport the train by road, irrespective of the congestion and danger to road users.
ScotRail decided to send two three-coach electric units from Glasgow to ABB's Derby workshop by lorry. It was quoted a price of between pounds 20,000 and pounds 30,000 per train to travel on the railway, including the cost of renting a special locomotive and paying Railtrack for the access charges. It found that this was 20 per cent more than the cost of sending the coaches by road.
Previously, the cost of moving the trains by rail would have been absorbed by the whole system; now it has to be met from passenger income. And because of the break-up of the railways, it was easier administratively for ScotRail to ring up an individual road haulier, rather than having to deal with all the different parts of the rail network involved in such an exercise.
ABB said that it does still use rail for transporting locomotives, but it depended on the precise nature of the journey, the condition of the train and the relative costs. Railtrack said that it could not comment on this case without all the details, adding: "Charging people to use the track is how we make money."
TIMETABLE? WHAT TIMETABLE?
Graham Larkbey of Hornsey, north London, recently asked at Victoria station's ticket office for the free supplement which is always produced by BR to provide corrections and amendments to the main timetable. The enquiry clerk shook his head: he could not supply one because the concession to sell timetables at Victoria (and at several other large stations) has been given to WH Smith. The shop is also supposed to hand out the supplements, but retail outlets are not used to handing out free goods, and they are often not available. Larkbey found that the WH Smith at Victoria was out of stock and did not know when new supplies were coming in. Even train operators now find it hard to get hold of copies of the national timetable.
Graham Larkbey points out that it is also now harder to get information from displays at railway stations: "Previously, when divisions of BR wanted to improve the advertising of services at their stations, they just stuck up a few more display boards. Now, every additional display board has to be agreed by Railtrack, the station landlords, and each extra one is liable to lead to an increase in the rent paid by the train operator to Railtrack." So there is a financial disincentive for operators to provide extra information.
In the great timetable disaster of autumn 1995, Railtrack decided to produce it in a new way; the result was so many errors that a supplement of over 300 pages had to be produced immediately, with a second quickly following, so that passengers had to consult three different sources. Eventually, Railtrack was forced to publish an entirely new timetable for the second part of the winter 1995-6, the first time that this has ever happened.
WHEN THE RIGHT TICKET'S WRONG
Morris Graham went on a day trip from London to Brighton with a group of friends. On the way back, on the 23:00 train from the south coast, the passengers for London were told to change at Gatwick and board the Gatwick Express. When the Gatwick Express shuttle left the station, Graham and his friends were asked to show their tickets. The group was bemused to discover that some, but not all of them, were charged a pounds 1.40 excess fare.
They tried to find out why. All had paid pounds 11.90 that morning at Victoria for their day returns. However, some of Morris Graham's pals had bought their tickets from one of the booths in the station. A second lot, who happened to have the right change, had bought them from ticket machines. A third group, the unlucky ones, bought them from a different booth. It was only when the inspector on the Gatwick Express train checked the tickets that Graham noticed that some of the return tickets were marked "London Brit Rail not Gatwick Express" while the others were marked simply "London Brit Rail". When Graham queried the fact that some of his friends were being charged pounds 1.40 more than he was for the same journey, the inspector said: "The discrepancy should be taken up with the company which sold you the tickets."
"Needless to say," adds Graham, "it was not possible to tell which company you were purchasing tickets from at Victoria and no one had warned any of the travellers that their tickets would not be valid on some trains. The tickets did not indicate which company had sold them."
LET THE TAXI TAKE THE STRAIN
John Ringham went to meet his wife off a train at Windermere in the autumn of 1995. She was due to change at Oxenholme, near Kendal, and the train was due in at 22:15.
He explains: "She telephoned me from the train to say they were running half an hour late. In case they made up time, I arrived to pick her up at Windermere well before the train was due in. The car park, the waiting rooms, the booking office and the platform were in total darkness."
At 22:15, the connecting train arrived but none of the passengers who disembarked were from the London train. John Ringham says: "Three of us went to see the driver and asked him about the London passengers. He told us he knew nothing about that, that it was a different company and was not his business, and took the train out again." Half an hour later, a fleet of taxis - seven or eight strong - arrived, one of which carried Mrs Ringham. The company operating the connecting train at Oxenholme apparently charged InterCity West Coast, which ran the London train, pounds 60 per minute to wait for the London connection and "therefore it was much cheaper to take ongoing passengers by taxi."
WHAT PRICE FIRST- CLASS?
Andrew Bennett frequently travels from Darlington to Exeter on InterCity Cross Country trains and likes to treat himself to a bit of luxury by paying the pounds 5 supplement to sit in the first-class compartment. In late January 1996, he was on the train when the "senior conductor" asked him to pay the supplement and told him it would be pounds 6. Asked why the price had gone up from pounds 5, the guard said that this was the amount charged on InterCity East Coast and that he was an East Coast employee, rather than a Cross Country one.
Bennett challenged this, pointing out that he was on a Cross Country route, in a Cross Country train, on Railtrack lines, and that the journey therefore had nothing to do with East Coast. Andrew Bennett, pounds 1 richer as a result of his understandable obstinacy, was later told by a Cross Country "senior conductor" that he had "done well to get away with pounds 5 from an East Coast man". In recent weeks, the Cross Country man explained, he had encountered many problems when he had charged the usual pounds 5 supplement to passengers, because others sitting nearby had been charged pounds 6. This applied to all those who had boarded the train between Newcastle and Doncaster, when it was under the charge of an East Coast conductor.
Andrew Bennett comments: "pounds 1 is a small and probably insignificant difference, but my experience does raise the issue of which parts of the new service 'belong' to whom, and who takes precedence in levying charges."
AT YOUR INCONVENIENCE
Allan Horsfall has been campaigning for a long time to get toilets reinstated at Bolton station, where the main facilities were closed three years ago because of vandalism and the lack of maintenance. He was within a whiff of success until the break-up of the railways in anticipation of privatisation. The Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive, which subsidises public transport services in and around Manchester, had been prepared to make a grant for improvements at Bolton station that included toilet facilities. The PTE had hoped to proceed last year, but was unable to do so, according to a Mr Woolvin, its rail services manager, "because of the changes in procedures and organisations in the run-up to privatisation".
The problem for the PTE is that it has been warned that if it makes a grant to improve the station, leasing charges or track access charges to the train operators may then be increased by Railtrack to reflect the improvements made to the property. The PTE already pays substantial subsidies to support train services in the Manchester area and it does not want to pay more because of grants it has given for those improvements.
DON'T USE THE FIRE EXTINGUISHERS
Railworkers put out a trackside fire with mud because they had been banned from using a fire extinguisher on equipment belonging to a different rail company. The incident, on 27 March 1995, involved a small fire by the track at Beckenham Junction in Kent. It was recorded in a Railtrack log, later leaked by the Labour Party, which said that the fire was "extinguished by TOC [train operating company - in this case South Eastern] emergency staff by using mud". Although there was a fire extinguisher at the station belonging to South Eastern, a notice warned them that using fire extinguishers on Railtrack equipment could result in "disciplinary action".
SHARING NO PLATFORM
Privatisation has led to a number of bewildering changes for users of Southport station, according to Noel Harvey of Ormskirk. The station serves two destinations: Liverpool, with trains provided by Merseyrail Electrics; and Manchester, with trains from Regional Railways. It is owned by Railtrack but leased to Merseyrail, which is responsible for it.
To passengers, the first indication of the change, in December 1994, was the separation of the platforms and entrances. Platforms 1 to 4 are assigned to Merseyrail, while 5 and 6 are for RR trains. A barrier has been erected to separate the two groups of platforms and the Regional Railways passengers have now been blocked from using the main station concourse and have to enter via a back way. Platform 4, however, cannot be used by Merseyrail trains since it is not electrified and all the Merseyrail trains are electric.
Angus Keith, a regular user of Southport station, says that the separation of the two parts of the station means that making train connections can be very hairy: "The Regional Railways service is pretty infrequent and if I am connecting with a train from the Merseyrail service, I tend to get an earlier train, because you have to go out of the barriers, leave the concourse, and re-enter the station through a side entrance to reach platforms 5 and 6. It only takes a couple of minutes, but that can make all the difference to getting your train." Some RR services are provided using locomotive-hauled carriages. When these trains are prepared for the return journey, the locomotives now have to go through a much more complicated shunting procedure because they are no longer able to use Platform 3 for this manoeuvre.
While there are Merseyrail staff at Southport, RR has decided to "destaff" its part of the station, and RR passengers cannot ask for help from the Merseyrail staff for, say, help with getting up the stairs if they are disabled. The Merseyrail staff do, at least, provide train information to RR passengers.
There are, in the new British railways, the official and the unofficial, especially when it comes to connecting trains. Paul Gosling was travelling from Leicester to Manchester, changing at Sheffield, and was delayed because his connection was an "unofficial" one. His train was due in at 09:11 at Sheffield and the Manchester train was due to leave at 09:14. Eight other passengers joined him in the race from platform 3 to platform 8, only to see the Manchester train pulling out. Paul Gosling complained to the station manager, who looked unsurprised. The official explained that he could not have delayed the departure because the train Gosling had arrived on was run by InterCity, while the departing one was operated by Regional Railways North West. One company's train could not be delayed to await a train run by another company. Gosling was told he would have to wait for the "official" connecting train, which was scheduled to leave almost half an hour later.
Adapted from "The Great British Railway Disaster", by Christian Wolmar, to be published on 6 June (Ian Allan, pounds 5.99). Readers can obtain copies of the book for pounds 4.99 by sending a cheque or postal order, or a Visa/Access authorisation, to: The Great British Railway Disaster, Ian Allan Ltd, Coombelands House, Coombelands Lane, Addlestone, Surrey KT15 1HY.
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