Lack of passengers blights launch of Stagecoach line

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

If the fate of the new private operators hangs on their ability to forecast demand, Stagecoach, the bus company which yesterday took over the running of South West Trains, failed miserably. Anticipating huge interest from anorak-wearing train spotters - or gricers as they are known - the company doubled the length of its 5.10am service from Twickenham yesterday because it was the first private service for 50 years.

But the gricers, who mostly dislike privatisation, staged a boycott leaving most of the 550 seats empty. Discounting the hundred or so journalists, politicians and public relations there were only nine genuine passengers on the train during its 38 minute trundle to Waterloo. And one of those was a fare dodger who slunk on at Clapham Junction expecting the normal lack of staff but found himself facing half a dozen "revenue protection officers" in their best uniform. They promptly charged him pounds 10, but like most fare dodgers, he did not have the money and therefore they merely took down his name and address leaving Stagecoach with its first debt collection problem.

There seemed to be no one with a good word to say about privatisation among the fare-paying passengers. One, Dave West, warned darkly about "cuts in train services and higher fares". Another, John Bird, a member of the Branch Line Society, said it might work but then decided he had been too positive about privatisation and added: "Who knows."

One of the few passengers who was actually using the train for a real journey became the first privatised cycle passenger when he wheeled his much-patched racer onto the train. Phillip Redford, middle-aged and bearded, called himself a "bus rover" and said he was on his way to play the cheap video games at Clacton.

However, while the trainspotters were absent, the government acolytes were out in droves. Toby Jessel, the local MP, just happened to be on the train, as was Nick Montague, a senior Department of Transport official who was the brains behind the privatisation scheme. Police at Twickenham station, however, had kept out any lost drunk Welsh rugby supporters and other undesirables, who presumably had to wait for the next train.

The 5.10am from Twickenham was not the train that ministers would have chosen for what they have been telling us all week was a "historic moment". Even on a good day, Peter Field, managing director of South West trains confided, it would have only a dozen or so passengers.

But because of legal and accounting complications, the transfer had to take place at two in the morning. Apart from the now famous bus replacement service from Fishguard on the Great Western Railway and another nondescript service which left Waterloo at 1am yesterday and transferred into a bus service at East leigh at 2.52am, the Twickenham 5.10am was the first fully private train service and had the great advantage of not being a bus.

Throughout the week, the Department of Transport spin doctors had refused to say whether a minister would be on the train but they had quickly whistled up Sir George Young, the Secretary of State for Transport, because of the public relations disaster created by the postponement of the London, Tilbury and Southend privatisation because of fraud investigations.

Whether the 5 10am thrives in the private sector remains to be seen since under the terms of its contract with the rail franchising director, Stagecoach is not obliged to provide the train. It merely has to bring the first Sunday train into Waterloo by 8am and with so few passengers ever using it its future must be in doubt.

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