Anyone seeking to have their prejudices confirmed about Britain's rail network being on a one-way, all stations trip to oblivion (probably involving a Bus Replacement Service) must have enjoyed last Wednesday. In the morning, the transport secretary, Lord Adonis, used The Today Programme to strip National Express of its flagship service, the East Coast main line. Later that day, I happened to be travelling from Peterborough to London in the care of said franchisee. The London radio station LBC 97.3 had earlier asked me for an interview about the effects on travellers. The timetable indicated I would have plenty of time to get to the studio in central London. But the express I had planned to catch had seemingly vanished into the Thirsk triangle on its way south from Aberdeen. Twenty minutes later another train appeared, and I told the studio producer I could happily contribute by phone from King's Cross. But somewhere outside Potter's Bar the 125mph train slowed to walking pace, and dawdled down the slow line, in and out of telephonic range. Accordingly, listeners were forced to endure a stutter of statistics about National Express's ambitious arithmetic, followed by a flurry of static, then a squelch and finally some welcome silence.
The interview abandoned, the train lurched into its London terminus half-an-hour late.
King's Cross is the location for platform nine-and-three-quarters, departure point for the Hogwarts Express. Even the wealthy and wise creator of that elusive train, and its notable passenger, Harry Potter, would hardly know where to start to sort out the more surreal aspects of Britain's railways. Trivial examples include the rail-air link between Teesside Airport and Darlington that operates only once a week, and the fact that the nearest sandy beach to London – judging by the fastest journey from a rail terminus – is, er, at Calais. While billions were poured into a project to accelerate travel from London to France and Belgium, urgent improvements that would have benefited far more travellers were overlooked. This morning, commuters between Scotland's two largest cities must endure a slow, noisy journey by diesel train; in any other large, prosperous country (and even small, poor nations) cities as close as Edinburgh and Glasgow would be linked by clean, fast and quiet electric trains. The same applies to Liverpool and Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield, London and Luton ...
You know the tune, to a rhythm of diddly-dee, diddly-dum: decades of underinvestment, plus a botched privatisation, makes a laughing stock of our rolling stock. Britain is surely the only country where a railwayman could complain about the "wrong type of snow". We certainly have the wrong type of rail network. Or do we?
The man best qualified to pronounce on the rudeness of health of the railways turns out to be very polite. He is also the closest Britain has to schedule sorcerer: the Man in Seat 61. Unlike his automotive counterpart, The Stig in Top Gear, Mark Smith does not mind the world knowing who he is – nor that he joined British Rail as a management trainee in the 1980s. He enjoyed a slightly surreal start to his professional life: looking after the line across Romney Marsh on the Kent-Sussex border. "You'd pootle down to Rye on market day and do the ticket office accounts. Lovely, lovely job." In the 1840s, when the web of railways was expanding across Britain, a local clergyman talked of "The World as divided into five parts, namely Europe, Asia, Africa, America and The Romney Marsh". Smith then picked up the poisoned chalice of managing London's most central station, Charing Cross, and went on to join the rail regulator. He progressed to the Department for Transport – until a chance encounter with a £2.95 teach-yourself-the-web book persuaded him to create what would become the leading rail portal, Seat61.com – named after his favourite seat in First Class on Eurostar trains to Paris and Brussels. The website provides free advice and encouragement to anyone who wants to see the world from the comfort of a ground-level window seat.
Numerous awards and accolades later, the man who makes a living from unravelling the complexities of rail travel is still prepared to join a journalist on a standard-class journey from London's forgotten terminus: Marylebone station.
Probably more people have visited Marylebone as a stop on the Monopoly board (it's the one between Northumberland Avenue and Bow Street) than have caught a train from here. The station was the last gasp of the great railway century; it opened in 1899, long after the main rail arteries had been laid down. In 1964, The Beatles used Marylebone to film scenes from A Hard Day's Night because it caused the least disruption to commuting life. By the 1980s, you could go anywhere you liked from Marylebone as long as it was Buckinghamshire, Banbury or Birmingham. Traffic had slumped so much that there was serious talk of converting the line north-west through the suburbs into a busway, and demolishing the fine late-Victorian facade to make room for a replacement for Victoria Coach Station.
The Independent's Simon Calder interviews Mark Smith of The Man In Seat 61
A ragged consortium of railway lovers (a rare species in the Thatcher decade) and well-to-do commuters chased away that plan. But then came privatisation – which every left-thinking traveller knows to have been a disaster. Correct, I asked the man who would presumably rather be in Seat 61 to Paris than on the 2.20 to Banbury?
"I think it's the other way round: I think that the Marylebone and Chiltern Line, one of the best-performing UK operators, sums up what has gone right with privatisation. British Rail modernised the line in 1990. They doubled the train service, they made it far more reliable, they brought in new trains. But when they'd finished, they had no resources to do any more. Chiltern were able to take over, double the service again, so my local station has seen its service quadruple since the 1980s. They were able to bring in new trains, some with wall-to-wall carpet and air conditioning. Marylebone has improved beyond all recognition; we hadn't even got an ATM to get a tenner out of the wall when they started. We've now got all the facilities you could want."
The facility that the traveller craves above all others is punctuality, and the train departed right on time: indeed, Mark Smith says the latest statistics show Chiltern performing marginally better than Swiss Railways. "If all privatised railways were like Chiltern, then I think I definitely would be in favour of it. Don't forget the railways in the UK started as private companies."
Considering we invented the thing, the British have a very uneasy relationship with the railway. Fewer than half of us regularly travel on them, and yet taxpayers pay £1 for every £1 that comes in from fares. As the Birmingham train rattled north-west from London on a trajectory unchanged since the Victorian era, I suggested to Mark Smith that the British have no appetite to spend serious money on proper high-speed lines as found in France, Germany and Japan.
"Every country seems to complain about its own network. Believe it or not, the Germans complain about their network. A lot is in the eye of the beholder. And you ain't ever going to enjoy your commuter train to work."
As we sped towards Buckinghamshire at 75mph, I wondered if Britain would ever get a genuine high-speed line from north to south.
"If we're going to get away from building the ninth runway at Heathrow, and widening the M25 and M1 and M40 to 16 lanes then I think we're going to have to do something. High-speed rail is probably the most environmentally sound way of moving large volumes of people over domestic airline distances. The key thing isn't the speed; the key thing is the journey time. If we can get a journey from London to Scotland under three hours, then we're starting to make huge inroads into the domestic air market. I don't think you can do that by simply upgrading the East Coast or West Coast main lines."
Somewhere around Wembley, we whizzed past a train in the colours of the Wrexham & Shropshire Railway. This enterprise has reconnected north-east Wales and the Borders to London, and is seen by many as a prime example of the benefits of free enterprise applied to the railways. Yet, as the excellent Paddy O'Connell reported on Radio 4 on Sunday, the company is hamstrung by rules that prevent it from picking up passengers in Wolverhampton or dropping them off in Banbury. More Hogwarts-style absurdity, I suggest. Hogwash, says Smith.
"We've got protection in place to ensure that, although we've got 20-odd different train companies, they all act as one network. Everyone has to accept everyone's tickets and there's a big revenue divvying-up at the end of the day. As soon as that 'open access' operator stops at Wolverhampton, part of that revenue disappears off to them. The cost of running the rest of the network remains the same."
Britain's 21st-century railway has a constant tension between the need to be commercially aggressive – to provide a return for shareholders and compete with road and air – and the duty to provide a socially beneficial service. "If an open access operator can make money servicing a market the franchise market has left out, like Hull Trains or Wrexham & Shrewsbury, that's brilliant, and if they want to do so, they can, but not at the expense of the rest of the Government-funded network."
Banbury: cross? When you ride a Chiltern train, the chances are you will not arrive ill-tempered to the Oxfordshire market town. Chiltern Railways delivered me on schedule at around a mile a minute. From 2011, trains will be even faster (London-Birmingham in 100 minutes). Two years after that the line from High Wycombe to Oxford will reopen, half a century after Dr Beeching applied thehatchet and closed the link down – along with many other lines that did not deserve to be ripped up (and it must be said, plenty that did).
Of the gaunt skeleton that remained after successive Conservative and Labour transport ministers' wholesale amputations, the feeblest components were the "cross-country" lines, connecting the North-east with the South-west and Sussex with Scotland. A decade ago, Richard Branson's Virgin Group came up with the novel idea of investing in new, fast, comfortable and reliable trains – not words previously used in the same sentence as "cross-country".
For my journey back to London I chose the most awkward journey possible under the terms of my "Super Off-Peak Day Return": the £13 ticket enabled me to return on a succession of four other train operators, to allow me to test the health of some of the limbs of this strange patient.
Things started to go wrong at once. The train from Newcastle, due to transport me to Oxford, had disappeared into the Thirsk triangle. (Perversely, platform indicators that announced its cancellation also informed me "Light Refreshments available" and that "First Class is at the FRONT" of the nonexistent train.) When another southbound train showed up, five minutes late, it had been shorn of Virgin colours. Mark Smith says the franchise system, which saw the innovators replaced on the cross-country line, is soundly based.
"You test the market and reap the benefits for the taxpayer. It's all based on reletting a contract: just as a company would relet its window cleaning contract. They wouldn't stay with the same people for the next 50 years – they'd test the market every so often. That's what the Government does."
Or, as in the case of National Express, the franchisee may say it cannot sustain the contract. In 2007, the transport giant said it would pay half a million pounds a day, every day for seven years, for the right to charge travellers between London and Newcastle a standard-class fare of £266 return. The company soon found that the number of people prepared to pay such fares was dwindling; although passenger numbers are largely unchanged, we travellers are becoming cannier at finding bargains. Britain has some of the most expensive train tickets in Europe, but we also undoubtedly have the cheapest for anyone able to book well ahead and travel off-peak.
Commuters from Oxford have arguably the best links to the capital of any city in Britain. Besides a half-hourly train service to Paddington, they can choose from two competing bus operators, both offering free Wi-Fi. Several train operators now provide internet access – and Mark Smith says that the ability to use a laptop can be decisive for people choosing trains over planes and automobiles: "French Railways are saying the opportunity to plug in a laptop helps them maintain 50 per cent of the market between Perpignan and Paris, which takes about five hours by train; five hours of billable work to your client is not to be sniffed at. If you spent three or four hours struggling through the airport, you'd probably get nothing done."
There is no such train as the Adlestrop Ambler, not least because the station on the Oxfordshire-Gloucestershire border at which Edward Thomas's express paused "unwontedly" and allowed him to savour the "willows, willow-herb, and grass/And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry", closed in 1966. The nearest equivalent is the departure that meanders down from Moreton-in-Marsh, pausing wontedly at Oxford at 4.47pm (where I boarded) before continuing to Didcot Parkway. For a sleepy, rural service this three-coach train performed a remarkable trick: on a 10-mile journey, it managed to arrive five minutes ahead of schedule.
Britain's train operators have long known that the easiest way to improve punctuality is to extend scheduled journey times; the only time that counts for the purposes of First Great Western's scorecard is the arrival time at Didcot. Five minutes of "padding" allows for mild disruption and minimises the chances of financial penalties. Twenty years ago, services from Paddington to Reading were scheduled to take 22 minutes; now the very same trains, on the same tracks, take 25 minutes.
No complaints about my short hop to Reading – except that it arrived at exactly the same time as a train to London Waterloo was scheduled to depart. Competing train operators seem to have no interest in easy connections: each morning, if things go according to schedule, the first train from King's Cross to Grantham pulls up at the same instant, 7.10am, that the service to Nottingham departs from the adjoining platform. In other countries this would be a connection; here it's a challenge that only the fit and reckless would undertake. But, says Our Man in Seat 61, this is unmistakably the age of the train.
"I've seen a massive increase in visitors, from about 100,000 a month to over 600,000 a month in the space of three or four years. When I started, people were telling me that they were afraid of flying, or they specifically liked train travel. Now they're telling me two things in the same breath: they're telling me that they want to cut their carbon footprint and they're telling me that they're fed up with the sheer hassle of flying. The world is almost turning on its head; it's poor people who have no alternative who are herded on to budget airlines and the more affluent people who sit back with a glass on red on a high-speed train, travelling at leisure down to the south of France."
"This is Earley", claimed the mechanical voice as we approached the first stop from Reading. And he was right. The train arrived early at Earley, and even departed Earley early – South West Trains has a policy of dispatching trains half a minute ahead of schedule. Later in the journey, which revealed just how much placid countryside survives in the Home Counties, a rainbow balanced itself over Longcross – a station that looks positively tropical by the way that the bracken has invaded the platform. Clapham Junction, the busiest station in Europe, is the heart of our railway jungle. I found my way to platform 12 for the last leg, and final train operator: Southern, to Victoria, to complete my long and winding trip from London NW1 to SW1.
The train arrived late and actually managed to double the scheduled journey time to the terminus. It even suffered the ignominious fate of being overtaken by the Gatwick Express, dressed up these days like an Emirates plane (the Dubai airline sponsors it). As travellers tutted and complained into their mobile phones, I realised that the belief "We don't much like trains, because they're late" is hopelessly wrong. In fact, trains are late because we like them so much. The main line from Brighton via Gatwick to London, created by visionary Victorians, can barely cope with the demand by 21st century people for fast, safe travel.
No one makes do and muddles through quite like the British; today's railways, in fact, constitute a remarkable story of extracting the maximum benefit from minimum investment. And I noted the wisdom of the advice that is attached to every email sent out by Mark Smith, the polite and sophisticated Man in Seat 61: "Never travel without a corkscrew and a good book."
World's worst services: The night train to Basra
Whenever you feel depressed about the state of the railways in Britain, just turn to the latest 'Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable'. The new edition is a bargain at £13.99, the Bible for terrestrial travellers beyond the bounds of Europe. But the tireless compilers have their work cut out to promote travel by train when so many nations appear to be doing their best to dismantle the railways.
From Cuba, an eyewitness tells Messrs Cook that in June Train 3 on the main line from Heathrow to Santiago departed six hours late, and took 31 hours to find its way to the island's second city. The main expresses, says the editor, "are now running every third day instead of every other day", before adding plaintively: "Unfortunately we do not know which days these are."
Passengers in Zimbabwe are having to suffer even more than usual because "Zimbabwe Railways have reduced the days of running of all their services; even those trains that ran three times a week have been reduced to two." In Pakistan, "several services are now running weekdays only instead of daily", apparently in an effort to save fuel.
In Costa Rica, the compilers note that the only long-distance train has "irregular" operations and that it "requires [a] minimum number of passengers to run – actual number unknown".
But there is one glimmer of hope in an unlikely location: "We have had a report that there is now a night train between Baghdad and Basra. It apparently leaves three times a week (which days are unknown) at 1600 and takes 18 hours with no stops en route."
Listen to a podcast interview with Mark Smith of The Man in Seat 61 at independent.co.uk/travel
Are our railways deteriorating or getting better? Which are the best and worst networks? Tell us your stories at: firstname.lastname@example.org