Travel: Simon Calder

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The Independent Online
If you find yourself in west London between 1am and 4am, you could well see a ghost train race past. Heathrow Express is testing the new Spanish-built trains for its non-stop link from Paddington station to the airport. But the habit of running trains with no passengers is spreading to the rest of the network.

Rumours have abounded all week that Eurostar is to scrap its planned services from Edinburgh and Manchester direct to Paris - three years after they were due to begin. The company denies the story, and says regional services will start in the New Year. Earlier this year Eurostar cancelled connecting trains from various parts of Britain to Waterloo, ostensibly in preparation for the direct services. To fill the void, one of the new train operating companies, Wales and West, launched a new Manchester to Waterloo train. But the National Rail Enquiry service (0345 484950) is doing its best to make sure no one ever travels on it.

Each time the rail enquiry service is found to be failing to meet its targets, and is fined by the rail regulator, promises are made about future performance. But these vows seem to be as empty as the 7.59am from Manchester Piccadilly.

Six separate calls to try to find out the fare all resulted in the blunt assertion: "There is no train from Manchester to Waterloo." You begin to wonder whether the new service is a work of fiction in the great tradition of British Rail timetables.

If you ask for a number for Wales & West, you are told to ring 01222 430090. This phone line - which has a human being answering for only three hours a day - refers you back to the number you first thought of. By now, the search for someone to (a) acknowledge the existence of the 7.59am from Manchester, (b) sell you a ticket for it, has taken considerably longer than the time it takes to fly between the two cities.

The lowest fare on Air UK's Manchester to London City route is pounds 65 return. Book instantly on 0990 074074.

Airlines and railways do not always compete, particularly when you are Richard Branson. If you want to travel from London to Los Angeles, or from Oxford to Edinburgh, the Virgin brand can get you there. But, writes Sara Barker, of Oxford, it may not be able to get you back.

"I wanted to go from Oxford to Edinburgh on Friday, returning on Sunday."

The appropriate ticket is a SuperAdvance, which requires you to book a particular train in both directions. "I could reserve the northbound journey ... but after speaking to Great Western Trains, Thames Trains, ScotRail and Virgin Trains, I realised that although a train departed at 10.30am, changing at Birmingham, it was impossible to book it". Eventually, in all seriousness, a ScotRail official suggested she returned on Monday instead - and an exasperated Ms Barker agreed. Her ticket, when it arrived, bore the cryptic message, "Unspecified restrictions apply".

The timetable describes the service she had wanted: "Expected to be very busy. Seat reservations are therefore recommended." Since reservations are impossible, I suspect it will be as busy as those ghostly Heathrow Expresses.

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