Great Railway Fiascos No 14: The slowest, dirtiest train in the West

AS TRAIN journeys go, the contrast was as glaring as Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. In France, Paul Quest enjoyed reliability, punctuality and comfort as the TGV hurtled along, leaving each station on time and arriving to the minute.

But in Britain the following day, travelling between Plymouth and Taunton, the retired teacher experienced a two-hour delay in antiquated carriages filled with the smell of blocked toilets. "The contrast was a stunning one," said Mr Quest, 61, who on July 24 set off from La Rochelle, bound for Roscoff to catch a ferry across the Channel.

"I watched in admiration as a long sleek TGV pulled quietly into the station," he said. "I settled into my reserved seat and relaxed as, quietly and comfortably, my journey commenced. I had three changes to make but there was no anxiety as each train arrived and departed promptly. I arrived in Roscoff refreshed and relaxed."

The picture in Britain was completely different. To start with, Mr Quest arrived in Plymouth only to find the station closed. When staff eventually turned up after nearly an hour "we were gruffly told that they could open the station at any time they liked on Sunday morning".

But things really started to go wrong once Mr Quest got on to the train. An announcement came that there would be a delay of 15 minutes. "I made a bet with a colleague that it would be more like 30. I should have said 90 as, an hour and a half later, we were still sitting on the train. The toilets on the train did not work and there was no air-conditioning. The conductor apologised for these, claiming that both were caused by old rolling stock."

The train eventually left two hours late. When Mr Quest expressed his concern to the conductor about his missed connection in Taunton, he was reassured that a taxi had been ordered to take him to his home in Yatton. But once in Taunton, the station manager said he had no knowledge of any such arrangement.

Mr Quest was also angry about the fare, which he said did not reflect the poor quality of the service. "As a senior citizen, my journey in France had cost pounds 23," he said. "My journey in England had cost pounds 19.50, for half the distance. I note that both Railtrack and Great Western Trains have increased their profits this year. At whose expense?"

First Great Western said the delay was due to a broken track outside Plymouth.

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