Misery Line blues

Just how miserable is the London-Tilbury-Southend line, privatisation of which was halted this week? Jim White reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The five o'clock train from London Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness on Wednesday evening left on time and arrived at Southend two minutes ahead of schedule. Nice to be able to report good news from the London- Tilbury-Southend line, widely known as the Misery Line: it does not get much in the way of good news.

"I suppose the worst trip I had," said one commuter on the train, looking so astonished as it lurched out of Fenchurch Street at the precise moment that the station's electronic clock clunked over to 17.00 that he had to check his own watch, "was when the train I was on stopped for an hour and a half for no apparent reason outside Upminster. I could see all the trains which had left after mine sailing by and I just thought, 'If only I'd waited a couple of minutes at Fenchurch Street, I could have been home an hour ago'. And the thing was, that was the third time it had happened that month."

The LTS, as it now calls itself, has long been the tarnished piece of fool's gold in the British Rail crown. Getting stuck in the company of pinched-faced bank clerks and disappointed office workers outside Upminster, or alongside the abandoned gasworks near Limehouse, or within brick-throwing range of a frightening, graffiti-smeared estate around Barking, or in the shadow of the glum new town centre of Basildon, or out in the Essex flatlands, where the oil refinery winking on the horizon is the nearest evidence of human occupation, is the least of it.

During the past five years the relatively simple procedure of transporting passengers the 35 or so miles between the Essex coast and the City of London has regularly been beyond the ability of the LTS. The tales of delay, ageing rolling stock, antediluvian signalling equipment and underfunding are legion: such as the time in 1993 when rush-hour trains were delayed for up to five hours (it would, literally, have been quicker to walk home); or the time when fares went up by more than 66 per cent (by mistake); or the daily approach to its own timetable which might be described as cavalier ("This is a special announcement," spluttered the Tannoy at Fenchurch Street on Wednesday. "The 16.40 to Shoeburyness will now leave from Barking." And, judging by their reaction, those who were standing on platform one at Fenchurch Street thought it a pretty special announcement, too).

All of this was intended to be cured by the panacea of privatisation. It was a familiar routine: starve a body of funds for the years preceding sell-off, then subsidise it wildly for the first few years of private ownership, and put the resultant improvement down to lack of state interference.

The LTS was supposed to be one of the first elements of the rail network to go private, bought out by the management team presently charged with the unattractive responsibility of running the line, but who would be able to boast within the next 12 months of spanking new signalling and an entire fleet of new trains.

Earlier this week, however, in a manner that would have brought a hollow laugh from anyone using the line, privatisation was delayed. An alleged ticketing fraud had been uncovered by British Rail inspectors; 20 members of the LTS management team were suspended.

The alleged fraud was an appropriately low-tech one. If tickets were issued at Upminster, a station shared with London Underground, an agreed percentage of the fare was to be sent to the Tube operator. However, if the ticket was issued at Fenchurch Street (a station which, as those who have been obliged to use it will know only too well, has no Tube connection), LTS could keep the entire fare. So, it is claimed, LTS simply transported large numbers of ticket stubs daily from Upminster to Fenchurch Street.

The thought of inspectors ferrying sackloads of tickets across the City is one of the few moments of light relief granted to those who use the line. You can see from their body language that holding a season ticket on the London-Tilbury-Southend line might not be the best way to alleviate stress in your working life.

"I work flexi-time," explained one commuter, "so that means I can beat the rush home. It seems to be that the system fails most during peak periods. If I get to Fenchurch Street after five, I can just feel the tension rising inside me."

Commuters ("customers" in LTS speak) adopt a look, the moment they step into Fenchurch Street, of those about to engage in a street brawl. They have discovered that during the rush hour, seats on the creaking old trains are at a premium, so they wait at the precise spot on the platform where the carriage doors will come to a halt, elbows up, flat-toed shoes poised, ready to gain extra yardage in the struggle for comfort.

Those who find a place bury their noses in books, or drift off to sleep, often both, anything to avoid eye contact with those opposite or worse, those hanging, tut-tutting, from the ceiling straps. Such are the cramped conditions that to open up a newspaper is to risk taking your neighbour's eye out. And when things go wrong, the tension quickly surfaces.

"I've seen people shouting at staff, really screaming and yelling at them about delays in a way you just wouldn't see anywhere else," said one observer of misery. "You have to feel sorry for the staff, because usually they don't know any more than we do."

"What really gets us fed up," said another commuter, who refuses to be named but confesses to trying to catch the same train every day for 30 years, "is the total lack of information when things get delayed. So if you do find a member of staff, you really make the most of it. In the old days there used to be a fair number of porters. Now, at most stations down the line, there's no one there. It's a source of insecurity for the female of the species."

Indeed, such is the absence of staff that misery seems a less appropriate term for the LTS than ghost line. Maybe they were all suspended, but no inspector checked my ticket anywhere during an evening spent travelling up and down the line. I finally tracked down a member of staff at Benfleet. Smartly dressed in her new LTS uniform, "Louise" had her name on a tag on her lapel and a marked reluctance to talk.

"We've been told not to talk to the press," she said, sinking back into her chair behind the glass of the ticket office. "Not that I know nothing, anyways."

Up on Benfleet's platform, the wind from across the marshes flapping the edges of a hoarding advertising Christmas bookings at a local hotel, the LTS corporate logo, in place for the great privatisation this week, already looks as though it will have to be renewed before the buyout goes ahead. Only the "L" of the transfers stuck to the waiting-room window remains in place.

Still, the new timetable booklet is available with this cheery message in the opening pages from Chris Kinchin Smith, who is managing director of LTS Rail Ltd: "I would like to thank the Lakeside shopping centre for sponsoring this timetable which has remained free of charge to our customers."

How generous of them: at pounds 2,450 for an annual season ticket from Southend to London, there is not much spare cash left for customers to buy works of fiction.