A vision of the future arriving at your platform: This could be our railway system in the year 2000, says Christian Wolmar

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The Independent Online
'WE ARE sorry for the delay, but rail traffic control has now given us a slot and we should be arriving at London Waterloo in about 15 minutes.'

The announcement was then repeated in rather broken French. Mr and Mrs Price were worried. The train from Dorset, run by Wessex & Solent Lines, which had just been taken over by the French company SNCF, was already half an hour late, and it was clear that they would miss their connection at King's Cross, the 10.35 Ransom Express to York.

The first day of their holiday, which they planned to spend in Scarborough, had started badly. The SNCF official at Wareham in Dorset had been adamant: they could only have a ticket to York on the family Railcard, because Railcards were not accepted by Yorkshire Runner, operating the York to Scarborough line; if they bought a ticket all the way through to Scarborough, they would have to pay the full price.

At least Wareham station was still open. There had been one attempt to close the line between Weymouth and Bournemouth but the Government had said it was 'socially necessary'. But SNCF was already running down the number of trains to the minimum specified in the franchise.

As the train, in SNCF livery, was already waiting at Wareham, the Prices didn't argue about the tickets. They would have to sort it out at York.

The Prices had been warned of possible delays. Waterloo had seen a huge rise in the number of trains at rush-hour times, with many private operators seeking to run trains for commuters. They now had a right of access to the lines but it was placing intolerable pressure on platform space.

Few operators had come forward to take up one of the 35 'area franchises' being offered by British Rail. But the other side of BR's privatisation blossomed, with dozens of operators seeking to run trains at peak times.

The Prices missed their Ransom Express. The next one was not until 4pm and the man in the Ransom ticket booth was also friendly but adamant. Their ticket was valid only for the Ransom.

'Your best chance for a refund is to apply to SNCF. Under the Passengers' Charter, they are supposed to give you your money back. And look, I'm not supposed to tell you this but there are both LNER and Yorkie trains to York in the next hour, but you'll have

to buy the tickets from them.'

Mr Price sighed. Without the Railcard, the return fare from Wareham to York would have been nearly pounds 300, but he had paid only pounds 200 for himself and his wife and pounds 10 each for their two children, Mark and Carol. The Government was close to achieving its aim of near-zero inflation, but this did not apply to the railways because subsidy was being progressively removed. Fare increases had been near 10 per cent for several years.

Now he would either have to wait for the next Ransom train at 4pm or pay the pounds 90 single fare to York for himself and his wife and another pounds 30 for Mark and Carol, because neither LNER nor Yorkie, the other companies running services to York, accepted the SNCF/Ransom railcard. They chose to look at the sights of London for a few hours.

The ride to York was pleasant enough with only a slight delay, caused by a row over the track allocations on the Welwyn viaduct. Ransom apparently could not get an early slot to go across because LNER and the local services had bid more money to be allowed to use it at rush hour.

Ransom offered an airline- type meals service, pre-booked and delivered to your seat. Mr Price could have relaxed if only he had not heard rumours about Yorkshire Runner's service to Scarborough not running because of a dispute between the company and the Franchise Authority. The rumours proved only partly justified. Yorkshire Runner was in dispute over train frequency, and at present there was only one every two hours.

After a 90-minute wait, the train came along, an old diesel with standing room only.

When the family emerged bleary-eyed from Scarborough station at 10pm, Mr Price was confused. He remembered the station being close to the town centre, but the train had deposited them a mile outside town.

'Ah yes,' explained the taxi driver, 'they're moving the station because they've flogged off the old one. They're building a new Safeway . . .'

(Photograph omitted)