The 'customers' at the tiny station of Berwick in Sussex are experiencing all the symptoms of a bereavement. Roger Gordon, our stationmaster for more than 25 years, has waved off his last train, blown his last whistle, delivered his last commuter to the big smoke.

Roger meant a lot to us. As we bowled through the lanes for the 7.32 with the grim prospect of the day ahead - difficult colleagues, deals to be done, bomb scares, standing room only from East Croydon - there was always Roger: framed, smiling, in the ticket office window of a station remarkably unchanged since it was opened in 1846.

Until 1988 there were Berwick custodians at each end of our commuting day. Roger and Simon shared the two eight-hour shifts from six o'clock in the morning through to the evening rush hour. That was Berwick's golden age: when the waiting room rivalled the village flower show, with Simon's pot plants and Roger's hanging baskets. First, Simon was snatched from us. We fought a tough campaign to keep him, but British Rail could not afford the luxury of two station personnel. Simon was posted further down the line. He took his pot plants with him.

But at least we could still cherish Roger until lunchtime. Until this year, that is, when staffing changes persuaded Roger that his best option was early retirement. It is the newly named Network SouthCentral that has done for Roger. He decided to retire early because the eight-hour shift at Berwick was reduced to four hours. Network SouthCentral could not afford a full-time Roger, and Roger could not afford to stay at Berwick for a part-time wage. He was offered full-time jobs elsewhere but he decided that, at 60, uprooting himself was not an attractive option.

He has chosen to enjoy his early retirement, but saying goodbye was, for us commuters, bitter-sweet. Daily we contemplated our ghost station with its shuttered ticket office and bolted waiting rooms; it was not easy to find a successor prepared to take on the new part-time post. Our sadness was compounded by the fact that Roger's departure symbolised the end of an era.

The railway Roger leaves behind is exhausted and run-down, not through inefficiency or bad management but because it has been starved of investment - sorry, 'subsidy' - for so long. Britain is tenth in the European league table in terms of government rail investment per kilometre. Yet it is estimated that British Rail and the government will spend more than pounds 500 million to make privatisation happen. This is a subsidy for political ideology - my tax money, and yours, used to dismantle a transport system exquisitely designed to shift huge quantities of people and freight around an integrated national network with minimal environmental impact. A typical suburban railway can carry about 70,000 passengers per hour per track; a road would require 13 times the space to carry the same number.

Small is beautiful but small is deemed uneconomic. I suspect our Berwick signalman will be the next to go. Roger's job was restructured in the name of efficiency, but surely there was added value in a full-time senior railman who combined the functions of information and advance booking clerk, station cleaner, lamp-man, painter and decorator and odd job man, not to mention his public relations skills.

How long before our small station is deemed uneconomic and consigned to brambles and bindweed? Closing Berwick would divert commuters to other stations and put still more cars on roads already choked with traffic from the satellite communities that have mushroomed in this part of Sussex.

As a nation we have been slow to wake up to the critical mass of cars on our roads and the fumes in our childrens' lungs, just as we have closed our minds to the appalling price we pay for letting our public transport system run down. In 1992 there were 4,229 deaths and 49,245 serious injuries on our roads. In contrast, on the railways, in the 12 months from April 1992 until March 1993 there was not a single passenger killed. Of the five recorded deaths, four were level-crossing fatalities, and the fifth a staff casualty. So that is the cost in 'real terms' for subsidising - sorry, 'investing in' - roads rather than rail.

At Berwick we have led a charmed life, far removed from the creeping squalor of poverty-stricken, vandalised, unmanned stations where it is unwise to be alone on dark winter evenings - or in fact on any evening. There are now no station staff at Berwick after 11.30am. A deserted rural station is hostile territory. There is nowhere to shelter because toilet and waiting rooms must be locked against vandals.

Earlier this year, Parliament was told that 80 per cent of Network SouthEast stations were unmanned after 6pm on weekdays. It was also told that there were an average of two assaults a day on that network alone. But the market rules, and, after all, how can the pleasure of having Roger greet us by name and ask after the family enter the equation or help to balance the nation's books?

And is Berwick simply a charming anachronism serving the pampered home counties or is it a model of public service that we should be fighting to preserve if we still wish to call ourselves a civilised society?

(Photograph omitted)

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