No 78: so you want to find out about the train to London?; True stories from the Great Railway Disaster

A weekly chronicle of the absurdities caused by the Government's privatisation programme
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The Independent Online
The Severn Valley Railway, which runs from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth in Shropshire, is the finest preserved steam line in Britain. Burnished old Great Western locomotives bowl through lush countryside on a 16-mile trip.

Even better, the Severn Valley station sits next door to Kidderminster BR station, theoretically linking the line to the rest of the BR network. A perfect opportunity, you might think, for any tourist to combine the age of Brunel with the brave new world of the privatised railway.

No such luck, as Michael Williams found out recently. Although the new operating companies are happy to advertise a train service from London, Kidderminster is unwilling to admit that it has any trains back to the capital at all.

Outside the station is a timetable advertising the wares of "Central Trains Limited" - a wholly owned subsidiary, it says, of the British Railways Board. Headed "Train services, Hereford to Birmingham" it gives no clue of any rail service to the capital. There is a disclaimer which says that other trains "may operate to other places than those mentioned on the board" but it does not say what they are.

Despairing passengers might turn to "Your journey planner" alongside. This is even more baffling, with a map of services operated by "Cross Country Trains Ltd", none of which run south of Watford.

Anyone who hasn't given up by now can try the queue at the booking office where, asked by Mr Williams for a timetable with information about London trains, the clerk said: "No, we don't have one any more. I suppose you want the most economic route?"

"No, I've already got a return ticket, I just need the time of the train," a bemused Mr Williams said.

"Ah, but the next train might be the most expensive. You'll have to pay extra, depending on whether you go to Shrub Hill or New Street" (a reference to Worcester and Birmingham main stations).

"How much would I have to pay?" Much fumbling through a volume thicker than War and Peace.

"It'll be pounds 5.20, but I might not be able to sell it to you because we close at 5pm and I'll have gone home."

Pity the poor people of Kidderminster. Its carpet industry collapsed under a tide of European and Third World imports during the Thatcher years. Now Central Trains seems finally to have cast the town itself into the Third World.

The Independent on Sunday's "Great British Rail Disaster" by Christian Wolmar, which includes more than 60 items from this column, has just been published by Ian Allan at pounds 5 99. If you have difficulty obtaining a copy, send a cheque or postal order, or credit card authorisation, to Great British Rail Disaster, Ian Allan Ltd, Coombelands Lane, Addlestone, Surrey, KT15 1HY. (Tel: 01932 855909 ext 235/236).