First Great Western: Modernisation, strikes, and buffet cars

The man who pays his way

Click to follow
The Independent Travel

For £125 a head, we deserve a 'thank you'

"You've been lovely people. Thank you." That is the first time I have heard such an announcement on a train. The on-board accolade was directed at the 500-plus passengers crowded aboard a delayed train as it crawled into London's Paddington station.

As weary travellers will know, there is nothing unusual in this, so what had the passengers done to deserve such a plaudit? Quiet endurance of being messed around as a result of an industrial dispute? Again, nothing new there. Perhaps we deserved it for passing with grace the test of patience: putting up with an absurd amount of disruption in a strike all about shiny new trains that, through fares and taxes, we are paying for prodigiously.

The fares passengers pay are only half the story of running our formidably expensive railways. The taxpayer chips in another £10 per second. Quite right, too. Like other civilised nations, the UK recognises the importance of swift, reliable, safe trains. After decades of decay, wished upon the railways by successive governments, investment is now pouring back. A key beneficiary is Brunel's Great Western Railway where a £7.5bn modernisation project is in progress. If you, like me, prefer manageable numbers, that's £125 chipped in from everyone in Britain.

The money is paying for electrification between Paddington, Bristol and Cardiff, and a fleet of new Super Express trains offering "more seats, faster journey times and more frequent journeys". They replace the 40-year-old High Speed Trains. The current rolling stock might be the fastest diesels on the planet, but they're getting knackered and crotchety. So are we passengers, as another strike – this one lasting three days across the bank holiday – wrecks the plans of tens of thousands of holidaymakers hoping to travel to and from Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and South Wales. First Great Western is operating a skeleton timetable, which I imagine is named for the appearance of passengers after protracted waits at the buffet cars staffed by well-meaning but inexperienced management staff.

Not-so-Great Western

The buffet car is one aspect of the dispute. First Great Western says the space would be better used to accommodate more passengers. Tea and sandwiches are to be dispensed by a refreshment trolley. I happened to be in Cornwall on Sunday, returning after researching my story on the Saints' Way. One of the guards I spoke to on a picket line during the strike rubbished the proposed change: "You know how the luggage gets piled up in the aisle. There's no way a trolley could get through."

Members of the RMT union stopped work for the day, as they will throughout this bank-holiday weekend. The core of the dispute, says the union, is not about sandwiches, but safety. The key reason for the successive strikes is: "To keep a safety competent Guard on every train."

When Brunel's wonderful railway finally gets electric inter-city trains, First Great Western wants the driver to open and close the doors. The staff I spoke to said the move would compromise safety at stations, and on board because guards would become little more than customer- service staff and, in the event of the driver being incapacitated, they would lack the training and experience to ensure passenger safety. A spokesman for the train operator said: "Our plans mean more train managers and customer hosts on board our trains, not less, and who, on every Intercity Express Train, will maintain the same safety competences as they currently require."

I am not at the negotiations, so I do not know where the truth lies. But I am on a delayed First Great Western train, and I do know that this protracted squabble over the rules for playing with a phenomenally expensive new train set demonstrates contempt by both First Great Western and the RMT for the passengers and taxpayers who are paying for it.

While they bicker, the pantomime continues. If you have the misfortune to be at Plymouth station on Sunday, look out for the bizarre spectacle of hundreds of passengers plus their baggage and children being shepherded from a High Speed Train that has arrived from Penzance, down the stairs, along the subway, up the stairs and on to a rather smaller High Speed Train for the onward journey to London. Train firm and union: a plague on both your platforms.

Par for the course

Meanwhile, the usual old muddle goes on. As part of my research, I happened to buy a ticket from Par to Lostwithiel. It told me two things: "Travel is allowed via any permitted route," and that it is "Refundable and exchangeable for a fee". Why? There is only one route between these two adjacent stations. And the fee for a refund is considerably more than the £2.30 the ticket cost. I had plenty of time to contemplate these two bits of nonsense while waiting for a train that took three times as long as the timetable had promised: 21 minutes, instead of seven. During which the nation paid more than £12,500 for the privilege of running the railway.