Mysterious tale of the missing railway stations

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Has rail privatisation brought progress? Only if you don't want to go to railway stations. Charles Arthur tries to crack the code to discover that most secret of facts: the address of Darlington railway station.

"Hello, this is the National Rail Enquiry Service, how can I help?"

"Could I have the address of Darlington railway station?"

"Just let me check. We haven't got the address."

"You haven't? But I need to pick someone up there and I've never been to Darlington. Do you have the phone number for it?"

"No. We don't have any phone numbers for stations - they're all ex-directory and we're not allowed to give them out."

"Er... would Railtrack have the number, then?"

"No - they just own the line. The train operating companies own the station."

Confused? Of course. Just when it seemed that the privatised rail world could not get weirder, it simply becomes Kafkaesque. Like MI5, railways stations now don't appear in phone books for "security reasons". Apparently, train operating companies found that passengers (or "customers") kept ringing up their staff to find out information - such as how to get to the station.

Since privatisation, every railway station has moved ex-directory - so that now you cannot find a phone number for London's largest stations, such as Victoria or St Pancras.

The problem is compounded for would-be travellers who know only their points of departure and destination, rather than which company they will be travelling with - since the latter information is required before tickets for the journey can be booked. Robert Heller, author of Catch- 22, would be proud.

During the (true) conversation above, the NRES operator suggested calling the train operating company - which, for the (randomly-chosen) journey from London to Darlington was Great North Eastern Railways.

I dialled the number NRES had given me.

"Hello, Guardian Royal Assurance."

"I'm sorry, I thought I was calling GNER."

"Oh, we've been having problems with this since at least mid-December. The number the enquiry people have been giving out is wrong. There's a digit wrong." She gave me an amended number. I called it. Nobody answered.

The Office of the Rail Regulator said that usually the complaints from rail users arise when they already have the railway station's number and call it, but are referred to the NRES - which is meant to be connected to Railtrack's computer, which should know exactly how close to schedule each train in Britain is.

"All the stations seem to have gone ex-directory," said the spokesman. "But you aren't encouraged to ring them. As to the addresses, I think they're working on the basis that stations are always signposted, and usually fairly central." Not always; and if you're trying to reach them by bus the correct address is not always obvious.

"There's no simple answer to the question about where you can get information about where a station is situated. Railtrack doesn't have the wherewithal to deal with people;s enquiries. It owns the stations, and leases them to the train operating companies, so it's them you should ring."

He gave me a number for GNER, which I tried.

"GNER, which department?"

"Actually I'd just like to know the address for Darlington Station."

"Just let me check. It's Victoria Road," said the woman. It had only taken the best part of the day, including six phone calls (two to Directory Enquiries) to find out something that used to be free in phone books. Oddly, it didn't feel like progress.