Going west? It's quicker to walk, sport

Beach bummer: it's much easier to catch a wave in Newquay than it is to catch a train that goes there
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Spring is here, the surf is pounding, and a stream of battered camper vans is already blocking the roads to Newquay, Britain's improbable answer to the North Shore, Hawaii.

Spring is here, the surf is pounding, and a stream of battered camper vans is already blocking the roads to Newquay, Britain's improbable answer to the North Shore, Hawaii.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of surfers take their wetsuits and surfboards to Cornwall's Atlantic coast. And every year thousands more would join them if only there were trains to get them there.

Next weekend - a bank holiday - is a big one for all the tourist towns in Britain's most impoverished county, and the hoteliers of Newquay badly need to cash in.

About 100,000 visitors are expected for the first ever "Mardi Gras" street festival in the town, the BBC Live music festival, a giant rally for fans of souped-up Volkswagens, and the first of this year's Newquay Surf Festivals.

Not many will come by train. According to Newquay's tourist authority, 96 per cent of visitors arrive by road, and it's not hard to see why.

On Friday, for example, would-be visitors from London or Birmingham have a choice of only two services, neither of them direct. From London there is an 8.35am or a 2pm from Paddington with Great Western trains, each involving two changes and taking six hours for a 280-mile journey. If you haven't already booked your seat, a return trip starting in the morning will set you back £132.

Coming home on bank holiday Monday will be slightly easier, thanks to extra services. But the guests, whether surfers or VW enthusiasts, will have to leave by 4.40pm if they want to reach the capital. Normally, visitors have to leave on a 2.30pm train, unless they want to be stuck in Cornwall for the night.

Newquay, with 16,000 residents, is one of Cornwall's bigger towns. Yet for most of the year it survives with only four trains a day run by Wales and West passenger train company, connecting the town with Par on the south coast mainline.

Twenty-three-year-old Shem ap Geraint, a familiar surfing figure in Newquay in the summer, says he rarely uses the train, so poor is the service, and prefers to hitch or drive. To make matters worse the train charges him £10 to take his surfboard while the town's buses ban boards altogether.

"Lots more people would come here if there were better transport," he said. "Some kids buy boards when they get here, then sell them off cheap because they can't take them back on public transport."

Janette Wolf, a London-based surfer, no longer bothers with trains; instead she takes a De Havilland 6, a small 40-seater plane operated by British Airways from Gatwick direct to Newquay for only £129.60 return (the cheapest ticket).

"The only charitable thing I can say about the train is that the views are nice," she said.

Paul Wright, director of tourism for Newquay, admits that the service is inadequate. "We would like people to switch to public transport, but at the moment it's difficult," he said. Visitors wishing to travel outside Newquay find they need private transport; not many brave the two-hour bus ride to St Ives or Falmouth.

The people of Newquay are in no doubt that the poor train service damages the local economy. The resort needs to bring in people all the year round, not just at the height of summer when the service improves, briefly.

Many, such as Stuart Walker, local secretary of the Railway Development Society, blame Wales and West for the situation. The company is responsible for the network of Cornish branch lines.

"For most of the year we have a derisory four trains a day," Mr Walker said. "Wales and West is keeping to the bare minimum of what they're required to do.

"There are no obvious plans to change things for two or three years. Newquay is one of the biggest towns in Cornwall and we have always felt that there's at least a need for a two-hourly service if not an hourly one.

"We've complained to the Strategic Rail Authority but got nowhere."

By now, he says, the service is so bad that local people don't even think to complain because using the car is second nature. "It is treated as a tourist railway," he said.

No one from Wales and West was available to comment.