For the past few weeks, train- spotters have combed the timetables of the first three franchises to be allocated to private operators - two London commuter networks, LTS and South West trains, and the InterCity Paddington network, Great Western Trains - in an effort to identify the first privatised train.
Much to the irritation of the publicity-conscious transport ministers, the services had to be transferred to the new operators early on a Sunday to minimise legal complications. (This was before the transfer of LTS's franchise was suspended pending a fraud investigation.) When news got round that the time of the transfer would be 2am, the gricers (train-spotters) got to work. They hit upon South West Trains' 5.10am from Twickenham to Waterloo, an unexciting local service taking 38 minutes.
Those passengers had better take advantage of the train while it still runs, because under the contractual terms set for Stagecoach, the bus company which has won the franchise, the train could be scrapped once the timetable has run its course in May. The first train which Stagecoach must provide from Twickenham on a Sunday is required to reach Waterloo by 8am, so both the 5.10am and the next train, the 6.28am, are likely to be cut from the schedule.
The gricers seeking today's first service have been in a state of confusion following the discovery that there are other trains running earlier. First they discovered Great Western's 1.50am from Fishguard to Paddington, which, because of engineering works, starts out as a bus and only becomes a train when it leaves Cardiff at 5.30am. It is a notorious bus/train as it caters for heavily drinking passengers from the Irish ferry. Embarrassed Department of Transport officials tried to cover up the fact that it was running at all. A spokesman said: "Well, I suppose it is the first private train as it starts out in the public sector and at some point in its journey it becomes private. But the trouble is, it's a bus."
Then it was discovered that there is a 1.05am Waterloo service which gets into Eastleigh in Hampshire at 2.52am and then becomes a bus, but the man at South West Trains was desperate: "We've put a lot of work into getting people to take the 5.10 train. Please don't go on the Eastleigh one." In any case, he pointed out, "all the revenue from that train will belong to BR and not Stagecoach. So it's not a private train, really."
So it will be the 5.10 from Twickenham, doubled in length to accommodate 550 train-spotters, journalists and hangers-on, which will feature mostly on today's news bulletins.
Last night, the Department of Transport refused to say whether a minister would be aboard.
Sir George Young, the Transport Secretary, was said to be desperate to avoid having his beauty sleep wrecked, while his number two, John Watts, defending a majority so low (under 1,000 ) in his Slough seat that he is in desperate need of any publicity, was surprisingly equally reluctant.
The other transport minister, Steve Norris, is too much of a bon viveur to want to ruin his weekend, and is not standing next time round.
It must have been the list of things that could go wrong that proved too terrifying for the politicians. Not only are there the usual things like the wrong sort of leaves or snow, but there will be leftovers from yesterday's rugby international at Twickenham - drunken Welshmen fresh from a night spent among flowerbeds in suburban front gardens, trying to get home. It's enough to frighten any politician away.
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