Is it a bus? Is it a train? You decide

Milton Keynes, National Railway Museum, Japanese bullet train, Virgin Trains, upgrades
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The Independent Travel

As the hangovers clear and the new Government assesses the tasks ahead, may I suggest a jaunt to Milton Keynes? Bright and early tomorrow morning, on the service run by the train operator Silverlink. It leaves Euston station in London soon after dawn, and arrives over three hours later. A milk float doing a steady 16mph could easily overtake the Silverlink service, and may, indeed, do just that somewhere on the A5: the 5.23 train on Sunday mornings is actually a bus.

I shall not see you there, because I have another train to catch. It sets off at the same time as the departure from Euston, and takes exactly the same time. The chief differences are that (a) it is a real train, not a bus pretending to be one; and (b) it will travel from St-Charles station in Marseille to Paris Gare de Lyon, nearly 500 miles away. The Mediterranean has a surface link to the French capital taking a shade over three hours, at an average speed of 160mph.

By nine in the morning, British time, I should be nibbling croissants and sipping café creme in the Café Beaubourg; this prospect has more appeal than the station buffet at Milton Keynes Central.

The most telling indictment of decades of dereliction on the railways is a new attraction that opens next month at the National Railway Museum in York. On 12 July, a Japanese bullet train becomes the latest exhibit at this commendable attraction. I am not sure which is more telling: the fact that, at barely 30 years old, the donated Shinkansen is considered obsolete for Japan, while plenty of travellers in Britain are trundling around the countryside in much older rolling stock; or that, with a top speed of 130mph, the unwanted express is faster than any of the trains currently running on our railways.

In terms of hirsuteness, at least, William Hague and Sir Richard Branson are as far apart as Anchorage and Zanzibar. But, I suggested to the Virgin boss this week, his task was of the same magnitude as the former Tory leader's: convincing a disaffected public that his view of getting Britain moving can actually work.

Sir Richard was positively (pre-election) Haguist in his optimism: "We said that within five years we would turn Virgin Trains into the best network, and we're still on target to deliver that."

And he has put his money where his mouth is. Every week for the next 18 months, a new 125mph train will arrive. They are to be used on the cross-country network. For those of you who have never enjoyed the dubious pleasure of this "service", it is literally the end of the line for locomotives and carriages that refuse to die (though all too often they expire in the middle of nowhere).

After millions of miles of service on important lines, the clapped-out rolling stock has historically been assigned first to East Anglia. When even the long-suffering folk of Norfolk and Suffolk had had enough, the wheezing engines drag their geriatric coaches to "serve" on the tangle of lines that links Basingstoke with Birmingham and Bolton, and relates Motherwell with Weston-super-Mare. Three years ago, Virgin inherited a rag-bag of trains that had long lost any virtue.

The maiden voyage of Virgin Voyager was as if the network had skipped a century, from Dickensian squalor to 21st-century style, complete with in-train audio. While on the Borsetshire Flyer, you can listen to the Archers, or indeed hear about the decline of the Railtrack share price, thanks to on-board Radio 4. As you recharge cerebrally, your laptop or mobile phone can get some volts from the socket at every seat. A brave new hi-tech world ­ but most people are more concerned with arriving in the right place at approximately the right time. Fast trains are no use if they can't show their paces.

"It's been a horrible three years," admitted Sir Richard. "If you turn the clock forward 18 months, it's not going to be absolutely perfect, but we believe it's going to be 100 per cent better than it's been in the past."

In the always-marginal constituency of Britain's travellers, plenty of people find it difficult to reconcile the (usually) high standards on Virgin Atlantic aircraft with the (sometimes) abysmal treatment on Virgin Trains. "It's going to be difficult to get it absolutely to the same level as Virgin Atlantic because we're transporting 30 to 40 million people a year, and even if we have absolutely the best new trains, sometimes they'll come up behind trains that are 35 years old belonging to other operators. But I believe we can move the reality from a rail network that is 35 to 40 years old to one for the new century."

Enough of slogans; let the traveller decide.

Uprades are dear to travellers ­ usually, in both senses. The question "How do I get an upgrade?" is often met with the swift rebuke, "Pay the business-class fare" by airline staff.

Last week I reported how TAP Air Portugal now allows passengers to upgrade on the plane. Rod Densham of Oxford says he has had similar luck on an American airline, and wonders when other European airlines will realise there is money to be earned for the aviation equivalent of old rope.

"I arrived in New York from Paris to catch a connection to Tokyo. The friendly United Airlines man charged me $150 [£110] to upgrade to business class. I regarded it as a good deal and so did he. The seat was empty and had to go to Tokyo, the business-class food was on the aeroplane, and he had another free economy seat for an economy fare-paying passenger (rather than upgrade someone for free). So everyone's a winner."

I bet the first law of air travel still applies, though: the person in the next seat has always paid less than you.

Simon.Calder@independent.co.uk

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