Going home for Christmas

It's the busiest week in the rail calendar, with millions of travellers struggling to reach their families. But with the network teetering on the brink of collapse and fares going up again, how are they getting on? Our writer journeyed the length of the country in order to find out
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The Independent Online

It seemed the ultimate challenge: to take a stress-free rail journey across the length and breadth of mainland Britain. No delays, no missed trains, no drama. Is such a thing still possible? In the next few days, millions of Britons, laden with Christmas gifts, will pack themselves on to overloaded trains travelling across the UK. What awaits them? Figures published by the Strategic Rail Authority last week show that delays on the network are now at an all-time high. And things can only get worse. The Rail Passengers Council complained this week that the industry has failed even to publish a timetable that will apply over the Christmas period.

Meanwhile, the papers are full of news of rising fares, and the structure of the network itself is in question. Railtrack is in an interesting, perhaps even unique position: technically insolvent, it has announced huge, increased profits, and it wants the taxpayer to bung it another billion or two. Christmas or not, perhaps this is not a good time to get on a train at all – let alone attempt a journey which will take me across the country to Land's End from John O'Groats.

Don't get me wrong. Normally, I love trains. Scruffy or elegant, fast or slow, rail journeys have a special charm – from the Moscow-Petersburg night train, where the spirit of Anna Karenina lives on, to the Peruvian train which zigzags its way high into the Andes, while passengers call for oxygen masks. Nor did I mind much when a guard locked me into a train in Bratislava; after hollering in vain for a while, I squeezed through a window on to the tracks. It is all part of train-life.

In Western Europe, too, trains are usually enjoyable. The Eurostar train journey to Brussels and Paris is infinitely more comfortable than by plane, let alone by car. On some German trains – my favourite luxury of all – you can book a compartment with its own shower.

In Britain, though, things look very different. In folk memory, we have an idea of railways in an allegedly golden era. The gentle pace of former days was sometimes real. I remember, as a child in west Dorset in the 1960s, watching as an elderly lady ran down the lane to the station, coo-eeing frantically; the driver reversed to let her catch her breath and the train. Such courtesy can scarcely be imagined now. The rail industry is non-stop stress – for customers and staff alike.

The story of privatisation in recent years has been one disaster after another – accidents, delays, worse accidents, worse delays. In the words of Christian Wolmar, author of Broken Rails – an account of privatisation that is packed with horrifying stories of incompetence – "The industry was split to its very core. It is rather like trying to run a restaurant with the chefs working for one company, the waiters for another and the washer-uppers for a third." This week, it was revealed that the Railtrack group – the company that made such a dangerously bad job of maintaining the rail infrastructure – made record profits this year, even as the Government put Railtrack plc into administration.

The most obviously disastrous period of delays was after the Hatfield crash of October 2000, when large chunks of the network had 20mph restrictions imposed, or were closed – sending the network into meltdown. Even now, however, the problems of delays show no sign of disappearing. In the past six months, for example, 41 per cent of Virgin CrossCountry trains arrived late.

For my journey, things sounded almost simple. I could catch an early train in the town of Wick, just south of John O'Groats. A desolate spot, about which probably the less said the better: a car park, several souvenir shops, and a signpost to Land's End. In short: Britain's most futile tourist attraction. The ticket office at Wick was closed, but the friendly guard on the two-coach 06:29 train from Wick to Inverness was happy to sell me my through ticket to Penzance, even as he declared the ticket system – cheaper for a return than a single ticket – to be "absolute madness".

So far, so good. Even the travellers on this ScotRail train seem more or less happy. "The vehicles are more comfortable than they were," "The disabled are treated very well" are typical comments. Some of the harassed staff, admittedly, are less impressed: "We haven't got time to empty our bladders, let alone speak to people." None the less, ScotRail can pride itself on not being nearly as unpopular as some of the rail companies south of the border.

The landscape encourages serenity. As we rumble along beside the sandy shore, snow-sprinkled mountains glow softly in the distance; the frost on the trees sparkles in the early-morning sunshine. In short, a perfect December-calendar cliché. The travellers, many of whom are off to do some last-minute Christmas shopping in Inverness, seem equally calm.

We arrive only 10 minutes late – which in modern British railway parlance scarcely counts as late. So far, the only glitch has been in my favour: the national rail information line told me my onward connection would be to Edinburgh at 12:45. In reality, a connecting train leaves in 15 minutes' time, two hours earlier. Time for more spectacular views – wild and empty landscapes, with bare hills and gurgling streams, as beloved of car manufacturers' adverts. Pure relaxation.

Then, in Edinburgh, there is the first taste of what is yet to come. There are almost as many different ticket offices as there are cappuccino bars. ScotRail, Virgin and GNER all have their own ticket-selling and information points. Like a manic version of a Butlins camp, the station is full of people in different coloured liveries, who can only answer questions of the appropriate colour (and sometimes not even those).

Again, however, we have arrived only a few minutes late, and my connection proceeds smoothly. We leave on time at 14:40. Now, however, life begins to change. I have entered the Virgin lands. Many of my fellow travellers have travelled south as well as north of the border in recent days. It soon seems that I am the only person on the train who has had an almost trouble-free journey.

Take Craig Boulter and John Crompton, for example, who are sitting opposite me. They describe how they were due to take the train yesterday from Preston to Edinburgh, to give key presentations at a business meeting at Gleneagles. On arrival at Preston station, they were told that the train had been cancelled. They were offered compensation: a cup of tea. They were then instructed to get on a coach to York, though it was unclear what time the onward train would depart. "They weren't apologetic at all," says John, who is busy composing an angry letter to Virgin. "It was just: 'For God's sake, just get on the coach.'" (In the end, fearing further delays, they drove all the way – and got bawled out by the boss for arriving late at Gleneagles. It was their own fault for travelling by train.) John points out that it would have been easy for Virgin to let them know that the train was cancelled. "They asked for our mobile phone numbers when we booked. They could have sent out blanket text messages. Why didn't they do that?"

Two of my other fellow passengers were, it turns out, booked on the same cancelled train. They are former senior British Rail managers. Neither man – one in a pinstripe suit, the other in a blue lumberjack shirt – will give his name. "We know too many people who are still in the business." Pinstripe, a former safety manager, simply asks: "Wouldn't it be good if we had joined-up writing?" Lumberjack notes that there were two separate (and contradictory) explanations given for the missing train: "unit failure" (ie, common-or-garden breakdown) and "missing crew". Whichever of the two explanations is wrong, he insists the old system ensured that engines and drivers would always have been available on standby. "When privatisation happened, that old system was called 'inefficiency'," he notes bitterly.

As I go further south, the stories multiply. By chance, I meet a neighbour from London, who travelled to the Lake District on business for the day. Her train was held for 90 minutes in a siding just a few miles from her destination, in a mobile phone dead zone, earlier today; the colleague waiting to meet her was told that the train had been cancelled; minutes later, the train pulled in – to an empty platform. No, she said (apparently surprised at the naivety of my question), there there had been no apology for the whole affair. "We were offered a free coffee."

By the time we get to Birmingham, the train is running 20 minutes late – peanuts, of course, but it makes the connection difficult. Luckily (for me), the connecting train to Bristol is also running late. If we are quick, we can still catch it. At Birmingham New Street, scarlet-jacketed Virgin employees stand at intervals along the platform and up the staircase, waving everybody excitedly in the direction of the Bristol train, as though this motley group of stumbling travellers were a bunch of marathon runners about to cross the finishing line.

I settle down on the Bristol train, and the stories start all over again. I am sitting next to Sue Passmore, a partly disabled microbiologist who is returning home to Bristol. When I ask whether she has had a trouble-free journey, I unlock the floodgates of indignation. She, too, wants to write a letter of complaint. At Bristol Parkway station, the loud-speaker announcements informed her that the train now standing at platform two was for Liverpool; she duly got in, only to find that she was on the wrong train. By now, the train was ready to depart, and the guard refused to re-open the doors. Only after another passenger who had been similarly duped joined in angrily were the doors reluctantly re-opened.

Station staff reproached her for failing to listen to subsequent messages, which corrected the mistake – even though, as she pointed out, you can't hear the messages when you are inside the train. Anyway, said Virgin, the announcements weren't our fault. That's the responsibility of First Great Western, who run Bristol Parkway. Blame-throwing is the rail companies' most popular sport, not least so that financial penalties can always be parcelled out to somebody else. Co-operation? Bah! Humbug!

By the time we arrive in Bristol, 15 hours after leaving Wick, I am beginning to think that – despite the (theoretical) romance of train travel – I will not be too unhappy when this journey finally comes to an end. This train, too, has been delayed by 40 minutes (though the photographer who was due to meet me at Bristol was informed by the station – when we were already at least half an hour behind schedule, stuck in a dark field in the middle of nowhere – that we were "on time").

At 9.30pm, the cappuccino stand at Bristol Temple Meads is still working, but the ticket office is already closed. After a few hours, I board the night sleeper from Paddington to Penzance, which passes through Bristol at 02:50. Here, too, passengers, draped despondently across the seats, summon up enough strength to describe the trials and tribulations of a modern British rail journey, as opposed to an old-fashioned British Rail journey. Maggie Cox, on her way home from Gatwick Airport after a week's holiday in Spain, paces around the platform, as she waits for the train to depart. She has given up expecting trains to be on time – ever again. "When I took the train to Gatwick on the way out, I left home at 1am. I had lots of time. But you can't afford to risk it, things have just got too bad."

Five hours later – just after 8am – the First Great Western sleeper pulls into Penzance. The remaining passengers are grateful that they have arrived at their destination at all. More than that, in current circumstances, seems to be just too much to ask. On arrival at Land's End, I notice that Britain has, in any case, got smaller. The signpost at John O'Groats showed that it is 876 miles to Land's End; at Land's End, however, the signpost reveals that it is only 874 miles for me to retrace my journey to John O'Groats. Another time, perhaps.

Postscript: I am writing this on the train home from Penzance to Paddington. My train has been delayed because of what is described as "a small technical problem with the leading car". Some time later, when the problem has been solved, we are told "the problem could have been a lot, lot worse"; we are all, of course, very grateful. The guard says we will be 20 minutes late; we duly arrive 40 minutes after our scheduled arrival time – as we disembark, he hopes that we have had a pleasant journey.

Christmas travel is, of course, always worst of all. Apart from that, though: have a good trip.