Brain drain on trains: Moves to hive off BR have cut commuter classes

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The Independent Online
BRITISH RAIL'S privatisation plans have hit commuters by drastically cutting the number of special adult education classes run on peak-time trains.

The number of classes, covering subjects from French to photography and wine-tasting to archaeology, have fallen by nearly half as the sell-off plans threaten funding.

Organisers are trying to persuade BR to provide more cash to rescue the popular services. Before BR split into 25 passenger divisions in preparation for the sell-off, about 250 courses started each year on approximately 100 trains.

All the main routes into London were served, plus the busier lines around the Midlands and between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Harassed travellers use them to forget the stresses of work and put otherwise 'dead' time to good use.

The charity which runs the Commuter Study Club scheme, the Mutual Aid Centre, received vital funding from BR. However, when the split took place in April, funding decisions were devolved to regional budget managers. In the uncertainty surrounding their initial financial position, only three have agreed to backing.

The result is that commuter study clubs have been sidelined. In the last year, as the network began gearing itself up for the division, the number of new courses dropped to 150 on 75 trains. Many popular subjects disappeared and one of the two full-time organisers was made redundant.

Pamela Le Pelley, the remaining paid worker, said: 'It is very sad that this is not being offered to all the commuters. People spend so much time travelling, it is nice for them to be able to use this time.'

The clubs, first established in 1977 with BR's permission, thrived despite rail strikes, security alerts and the increased use of the car. Students shrug off the cramped conditions, noise and motion.

Typical was the group of five eager French-speakers who packed into a musty first-class compartment on the 18.29 from Charing Cross to Tunbridge Wells last week for Liliane Beal's first lesson of the term.

Ann Marshall, a senior secretary at the House of Lords, had barely 15 minutes before she alighted at Chelsfield, but still had time to explain her reason for wanting to improve her French. 'J'ai une maison en France,' she told the class.

Her classmate Daniel Carter's linguistic skills were not as strong, so he stuck to English: 'I want to improve, but being a commuter gives you no time at all to go to night classes.'

Enquiries about Commuter Study Clubs to Pamela Le Pelley at 18 Victoria Park Square, London E2 9PF. Tel 081-980 0701.