Great Railway Fiascos No1: Unloved station that came to a halt dead halt Great railway journeys to nowhere

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The Independent Online
AN UNPRETENTIOUS Victorian railway station called Essex Road, in the heart of Blairite Islington, is, in its small way, a metaphor for all that is wrong with New Labour's integrated transport policy.

Essex Road lies on the overground line which feeds commuters from East Hertford- shire into Moorgate and the City of London. For those of us unlucky enough to travel on this blighted branch there is a familiar announcement, "Essex Road Station is closed due to staff shortages".

Over the past year I have heard that at least 40 times. In recent days, I have heard it at least three times. "Oh, its got to have been closed 40, 50 times, even more in the last year," said a fellow-sufferer.

Bear in mind that the line is not run at the weekends or after 8.30 in the evening. That is an awful lot of closures. With the usual literary apologies - to close an entire station once is unfortunate, twice is careless, but dozens of times is a flagrant disregard for your passengers and John Prescott's reputation. It is the principle of the matter. You are either running a railway line or you are not.

Essex Road is not one of London's transport hubs but passengers do get and on and off there - when it is open. An integrated transport system implies you can go wherever you want whenever you want.

I asked West Anglia and Great Northern (WAGN) railways, who run the line, how many times Essex Road has been closed in the past two years. But they did not know. Nor would they find out.

"We do not have the information collated," said a spokeswoman for the Cambridge- based company. "It would take a day-and-a-half to compile and we aren't prepared to do that for you." Apparently, if the rail regulator asks for the information they will compile it. But perseverance works and, eventually, we haggled our way to a compromise. WAGN would check this June and the similar month last year.

The answer: "It was twice during June and twice during June last year." Then she added: "But I am prepared to concede that it has been shut more often than that in the last few weeks."

WAGN was even prepared to concede the station has been closed a lot over the months. The reasons, they say, are complicated. "Essex Road is regarded in law as an under- ground station," goes the official view.

"This means it needs two people at all times in case of an emergency evacuation - one on the platform and one at the top of the stairs, and they need to be specially trained. In addition, entry is only by lift. Therefore, staff have to be specially trained in using the lift in an emergency."

The spokeswomen went on: "We admit we need to do more training of other staff so they can moved to Essex Road in time of shortage."

And there has been a staff vacancy at Essex Road. "The vacancy will be filled by the end of September," said the WAGN spokeswomen, hopefully.

"WAGN apologises to our customers for the inconvenience. We are doing everything we can."

Except for keeping the station open, of course.

Those of us who regularly use the Moorgate line are familiar with excuses and apologies. Besides closures, there are late trains, half-trains, failed trains and the trains which are too crowded to even get on.

Then there are the dreary vandalised, stations that reek of urine, and draw lurking criminals because they are manned only part-time and have no CCTV.

What Essex Road reflects is that the private rail companies have no fear of government intervention over poor performance or service. When the Deputy Prime Minister Mr Prescott wears his Transport Minister hat he jokes that he feels like a fox in the hunting season.

That is enough to drive us poor commuters into the arms of the pro- hunting lobby.

WAGN is one of four rail franchises owned by Prism Rail. The chief executive Giles Fearnley alarmed rail users earlier this year by suggesting that some rural lines should be replaced by bus service which would offer "three times the frequency and stopping at more places than our rail service."

Oh, I should have said - I do not get off at Essex Road.

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