First privatised train turns out to be a late-running bus

Railways sale: Inauspicious start for private services as enthusiasts stage a boycott and engineering work confuses travellers
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The Independent Online
MICHAEL PRESTAGE

The defining moment of rail privatisation was to have taken place 10 minutes after the 1.50am Fishguard-to-Paddington service had started off. But old habits die hard for British Rail. The historic changeover happened just as the late incoming service entered the harbour, where passengers from the Irish ferry were waiting.

The fact that the first private train for 50 years was also a bus had already embarrassed new owner, Great Western Trains. Engineering works meant the first passengers travelled by bus as far as Cardiff.

Officials needed to find a time to transfer the first three passenger rail franchises to the private sector and decided on 2am on Sunday, when, they believed, no trains were operating. But they overlooked the Fishguard service. And so it was that waiting for the bus on a chill night was a small media huddle.

The first to board was a stag party from Whitland, Dyfed, who had taken the ferry to Rosslare and back to celebrate.

The bridegroom-to-be, daubed head to foot in black shoe polish, was beyond noticing the epoch-making significance of the journey.

One of his friends, a farmer called Huw, who was a veteran of the day- long "booze-cruise'' crossings to Ireland, was used to the bus. He did not expect things to change. "It's always a bus from here. They can't afford to run a train.''

John Seymour, 81, from just outside Rosslare who was heading to London for the launch of his latest novel, was not aware his train was going to be a bus and was not happy. "We weren't given any information at the station at all," he said. "Nobody seemed to know why there was no train: everything from privatisation, work on the line and an accident were put forward as excuses. Next time I come I'm going to fly.''

The bus driver had no strong views about privatisation and the 2am changeover passed unnoticed by the handful of passengers travelling to Fishguard. "All I know is that I'm driving the bus today and if I haven't won the lottery I will still be driving it tomorrow.'' By the time the bus reached Cardiff at 5.20am the press outnumbered passengers, the driver having made an unscheduled stop at Whitland to allow the stag party to disembark.

A guard awaited the trains arrival still wearing his British Rail issue uniform. The new forest green jacket and grey trousers that will identify him as a Great Western Trains staff member had not yet been given out. He was unenthusiastic about the change of owner. "It's a different zoo keeper, that's all. We can't get any lower, and that's being honest with you. This government has got a hell of a lot to answer for.''

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