Oh Mr Major, what shall we do, we wanted to go to Aberdeen and there isn't a train from Crewe: The junction at BR's heart is a shadow of its former self. Will privatisation mean the end? Peter Crookston talks to passengers and railwaymen

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The Independent Online
YOU can get to almost anywhere by train from Crewe. The boat train to Holyhead will get you to Dublin; a sleeper will eat up the night to Aberdeen; change here for Cardiff, Edinburgh, Dover, Dundee, Shrewsbury, Southampton, Bristol and Bournemouth.

For Ben Nevis, take the Glasgow train and change at Glasgow for Fort William; for cocktails in the palm courts of Torquay, take the 13.24 to Penzance, change at Newton Abbot, and you'll arrive on the English Riviera as the sun goes over the yard-arm at 18.06.

But will Crewe still be required to fulfil all these functions after railway privatisation, the Bill for which is being published this week? Might not the entrepreneurs studying British Rail's form think that some of these journeys are perhaps too esoteric? That Crewe may now be an important rail centre, but that judged strictly in business terms it will never be a profit centre?

Though 200 trains use Crewe every day, it no longer buzzes with people making their connections. Little knots of passengers dot the dozen platforms and sometimes only two or three people will move forward to board a long and important-looking train bound for Wales or the West Country.

One railway enthusiast who knew it in its prime said: 'It's like a dried-up river bed now. It's as if all the water has been diverted to the motorways.' And as I stood on a long-empty platform, in one of the rare five-minute periods when no train moved, my mind's eye compared the scene to the constant roar of Spaghetti Junction, where the Cavaliers, Sierras and BMWs whizz and weave.

IN THE golden age of provincial theatre, Crewe was made jolly and boisterous by the 'Hello darlings]' of hundreds of touring actors and actresses changing trains. And here is anecdotal evidence for the quality of the food at Crewe in the age of steam from the late Sir Ralph Richardson. At lunch in the Savile Club one day in the 1960s he looked across at the treacle tart I was eating and boomed: 'Treacle tart, how simply marvellous.' Turning to Sir John Gielgud, he said: 'Johnny, do you remember that wonderful treacle tart in the buffet at Crewe? Surpassed only, I think, by the jam roly-poly and custard at Birmingham New Street.'

Alas, no such treats are available at Crewe today. You can get Danish pastries, or Donuts (sic) with tea in plastic beakers. And there's a 'Self-Service Microwave' into which you can pop baguettes with various fillings or the 'Hot Sausage Special' which you leave in its red cardboard box while it is being zapped, making warm its contents - a long bun with the consistency of a moist foam mattress, enfolding a clammy plastic-textured sausage, flavoured with tomato sauce and onion.

The first person I questioned on Crewe station for views on privatisation happened by chance to be a British Rail manager on his way from Manchester to a meeting in Bristol. He took a furtive look around the buffet and sidled outside. 'I'll talk,' he said as he led me behind a mail trolley, 'but I won't tell you who I am.'

The plan for privatisation, he said, had reduced morale to rock-bottom. And it was happening at a time when everything was beginning to come right. 'We've just completed a total reorganisation of our management structure called Organising For Quality, in which every single asset of British Rail is identified to an owner, ie, a manager - like myself - running his own sector with total control over his own budget. It's been tremendous for morale and for improving efficiency, but with privatisation it will be changed back from a vertical management structure to a horizontal one.

'For example, the franchisees will have no control over the track. If Railtrack (the authority which will manage and maintain the tracks) decides it won't spend money on, say, the West Coast Main Line, there's nothing the franchisees will be able to do about it. Whereas now, the director of InterCity, responsible for the whole thing, can control what he spends his money on.

'Here's an example of how it won't be good for the customer: let's say you and I decide to get the 7.50 from London to Leeds and we travel out with, say, BadgerRail rather than with Branson. But which train will we return on? One of us might want a train at around 4.30, but BadgerRail doesn't have a train running till 7pm. Do you hang around Leeds till 7pm or, desperate to get home, pay to upgrade your ticket to Branson's Superdoop Service because it has a train at 4.30pm? Everything under privatisation is going to depend on the quality of your ticket.'

BEFORE the railways came, between 1830 and 1850, Crewe did not exist; it was an uninhabited tract of Cheshire farmland. Then, because of its position, it became the busiest and most famous junction in the world, immortalised by the Victorian music hall star Marie Lloyd singing:

Oh Mr Porter,

What shall I do?

I wanted to get to Birmingham

And they've taken me on to Crewe.

Crewe Railway Works was one of the greatest industrial complexes in the world until the demise of steam in the 1960s. It employed 7,000 and could make everythlng from a complete train down to waiting room coal scuttles. The last locomotive was built there in 1958. Ravaged by redundancies, only the rump of BREL, the privatised former British Rail Engineering Company, remains, doing maintenance work but no longer building rolling stock.

W H Chaloner's The Social And Economic Development Of Crewe reveals that railway franchises were a problem in Crewe's past:

'Most of the early railway companies had originally been, like their predecessors the canal companies, merely the passive owners of a system of transport open to the use of all, on payment of a toll . . . but complaints of inefficiency and the danger of accidents gradually forced the vast majority of companies to work the lines themselves.'

A man who works among BR's clerical staff at Crewe and who also asked to remain anonymous, was worried privatisation would lead to 'cherry-picking', with disastrous effects on the timetables. 'Running trains full, half-full or empty is the essence of a railway time-table - it's a social service we're providing, every day, every week. Of course businessmen wanting to make a fast buck will be keen to run the 7am from Manchester to Euston and the 5pm back - but what about the midday train on a Tuesday in the third week of February with snow on the ground? At the moment it will turn up, though it may be late. But it isn't subjected to a businessman saying 'I won't run that train because hardly anyone uses it'. And he shouldn't be able to do that. There are all sorts of social constraints involved in running a railway.'

This was also the view of two recently-privatised managers with British Gas, whom I met on the 7.25 from Euston - one young, one middle-aged, on their way to Bolton. Both agreed that privatisation had been a good thing for the gas industry, but would not be good for the railways.

'A route like this one would be profitable, but the one to Blackpool, which is unprofitable, would be closed down,' said Simon Evans, 33. His colleague, Alex Formoy, 62, thought that privatisation might work so long as the operators were held to contracts which kept important but less profitable lines open, upholding what he called 'the social function'.

Mr Evans looked sceptical. 'I can't see how privatised railways are going to give anyone any choice. By definition it can't be done. If a better firm is running the commuter services in Surrey, as opposed to the one in Kent where I live, I'm hardly going to move to Surrey to take advantage of it.'

Were they regular train travellers? No, said Mr Evans, they both had company cars which they would normally use, but they had decided on the train today because of the bad weather.

So who are the regular customers? And what might privatisation mean for them? Most of the people waiting for trains at Crewe were old women with those little suitcases that prevent too much weight being carried and at the same time reassure sons-in-law and daughters-in-law that they won't be staying too long.

Many students were on the move, with their colourful sports bags and rucksacks; the university cities of Aberdeen, Cardiff, London, Manchester, Nottingham, Oxford and Swansea can all be reached from Crewe. The trains were half-empty, for at 12.30pm this was the hour of the Super Saver and there wasn't a businessman or woman to be seen. Will anyone continue to run trains for the old, the young and the poor after privatisation? Or will they become, like the travellers on Greyhound buses in America, the no-hopers of society?

Leading article, page 22

(Photographs omitted)

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