A passage to Euston (30 mins late)

It was the week that politicians woke up to the railways' plight. The transport secretary Stephen Byers returned from his holiday, amid a series of strikes, to prepare for the publication tomorrow of the Strategic Rail Authority's 10-year plan. At the same time it emerged that Lord Birt, former BBC director general, had been commissioned by Tony Blair to report on transport's long-term future ? "blue skies" thinking. And Shantanu Nandan Sharma, a veteran of chaotic Indian railways, and a British train virgin, undertook an odyssey through England to find out just how bad things are
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Bury St Edmunds to Peterborough

Bury St Edmunds to Peterborough

(Departure on time at 08.18)

The difference between train travel in India and Britain was apparent as soon as I arrived at Bury St Edmunds station to begin my journey across Britain. Every station, and every train in India, as I know from my regular journeys across the country, are crowded with passengers, with not a place to spare. But at 8am, Bury was deserted except for one man pacing the long platform in the dark and drizzle. He was Michael Graham, who works for a ferry company, DFDS Tor Line, and was travelling to Middlesbrough. Mr Graham was annoyed. He had begun his journey in Ipswich, had been told to take a train to Cambridge, and catch a connection to Middlesbrough. But once on board, the guard on the Anglia Line train told him to get off at Bury St Edmunds for a connection to Peterborough. At Bury, he found out that he had a 50-minute wait for the train – which would come from Ipswich. "Had I been informed correctly, I would have waited at the Ipswich railway station itself. Not like this, waiting on this cold, lonely platform," he said, visibly annoyed.

Bury is a small station, with just two platforms, so it is easy to find out where to go. But for anybody wanting help, it offered little. There were no staff on the platforms.

The train arrived on time. Most of the passengers were travelling to Peterborough to catch the London – Edinburgh train. One fellow traveller, Lesley Partridge, who works in management, had an important client meeting at 11am in York. It was due to be held in a building a few yards from the station, so she had given herself just five minutes to get there.

Wasn't that a bit optimistic? Had I been in her shoes in India, I said, I would have gone the night before, and checked into a hotel. Ms Partridge wasn't as cautious as I, and the train service offered her little choice. To arrive earlier, she would have had to leave her home two hours earlier which would have been a waste of time.

Arrival: two minutes late

 

Peterborough to Newcastle (Departure four minutes late at 09.48)

Peterborough is a busy station but it is easy to discover where to go because of the computerised television monitors. The Edinburgh-bound train was part of GNER's flagship service, and it was a sophisticated, comfortable and tidier train than the one I'd just got off.

This was a morning when train travel was in the news: the papers had lots of coverage of of rail strikes and criticism of Stephen Byers's untimely holidays in India, as well as of the comment by the Europe minister, Peter Hain, about Britain having the worst railway in Europe. Perhaps my fellow passengers took their cue from this to chat about the pathetic service and long delays.

At first, I enjoyed the speed and comfort of the Edinburgh-bound train. But when we arrived at Doncaster at 10.40 am, we were told to leave the train. The train could not continue for unavoidable reasons, we were told. Instead, we had to change platforms and after a 25 minute wait, board another train to continue our journey. Late running proved costly to many of the passengers. At York at 11.30 am, Ms Partridge admitted her optimism had been unfounded, and that she had cancelled her 11am meeting. At Newcastle, I'd planned to leave the station to see the Tyne, but that proved impossible..

Arrival: 40 minutes late

 

Newcastle to Carlisle

(Departure on time at 12.36)

I had just six minutes to find the next train. Newcastle is a huge station with a baffling number of platforms and lots of information desks. But the queues were long, and I would have missed my train. Instead, I found a monitor and discovered where my train was going to be. Even so, I had to run to avoid missing it.

The Arriva Trains North service was a tiny train with few people on board as it passed through picturesque countryside. During the journey, I encountered Swathi, a doctor from Hyderabad, India, now working in Newcastle. We talked about rail performance in India and Britain. I told her of some of my 45-hour long journeys from Delhi to Guwahati, Assam, by the Brahmaputra Mail, where ticketless passengers grabbed my reserved berths. Dr Swathi finds the British service more systematic and better-organised than its Indian counterpart, but, as I was finding out, it still left much to be desired.

I had intended to eat a meal but with little time to spare between trains, I grabbed a sandwich and a Coke from the station buffet. At £3 for a drink and a tuna fish snack that wasn't fresh at all, it seemed not that much of a bargain.

Arrival: two minutes late

 

Carlisle to Whitehaven:

(Departure on time at 14.21)

The fast trains in India – such as the Rajdhani from New Delhi to several provincial capitals or the fastest, the Satabdi Express – are comparable to the modern trains in Britain. But the smaller services on the subcontinent are poor: overcrowded, delayed, and dirty. The journey to Whitehaven by First North Western was a slow one along the Irish Sea. But the many stops along the way, and the clean and tidy service, failed to attract many passengers.

Arrival: two minutes late

 

Whitehaven to Carlisle

(Departure on time at 17.00)

Whitehaven was my last destination. I had 90 minutes to spare and spent the first hour admiring the beautiful harbour and some centuries-old houses. Then I went to the information counter at Whitehaven station. "I am going back to Carlisle on the five o'clock train, which gives me very little margin to catch the London Euston train," I explained. "Don't worry," was the reply. "The other train is always late."

Arrival: on time

 

Carlisle to London

(Departure eight minutes late at 18.25)

He was right. Though the train from Whitehaven reached Carlisle on time, the Virgin train from Glasgow was late. I had 11 minutes to grab a sandwich and a cup of hot coffee, long enough to sit down at the station café. Again, the cost was around £3, but as the chicken sandwich was fresh and the café warm and clean, it seemed a more reasonable price.

Virgin's train was stylish, comfortable and not full. I arrived at London Euston, tired after such a long journey, only to face a long, cold walk along the platform to the Underground. At 11.05 nearly everything was closed, few people were around, and the station was an unprepossessing place. It looked grubby.

Arrival: late by 30 minutes at 11.05

 

Two things struck me after my round-Britain trip. First, out of six train journeys, five ran late. Only Arriva Trains Northern's service from Whitehaven to Carlisle ran on time. Second, it was a particularly poor record, given the price. My 28-hour-long New Delhi-Guwahati Rajdhani trip by state-owned railways, covering 1,250 miles, with a reserved berth to sleep in, and free food, cost me £28. My 650-mile journey in England, using five different companies, cost £137.30

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