Simon Calder: Goodwill to all men – except rail passengers

The man who pays his way

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The Independent Travel

Rail passengers in the UK understand, through weary experience, that trains may be stopped in their tracks by anything from the passing of the seasons – in particular autumn leaves and the wrong kind of snow – to the traditional festive engineering works on the West Coast main line that will disrupt train journeys from this weekend until the New Year.

At least the sequence of rail strikes planned in the run-up to Christmas has been called off. Earlier in the week, industrial action by members of the RMT union looked like stopping both Britain’s longest train (the 16-carriage, quarter-mile-long Caledonian Sleeper from London Euston to the Highlands) and Britain’s longest train journey, from Aberdeen to Penzance.

Happily, the disputes at both ScotRail and CrossCountry were called off on Wednesday morning – which didn’t stop the bus operator, National Express, mischieviously tweeting later that day, “Avoid the rail strikes and disruption and travel by coach this Christmas”. Only Ebenezer Scrooge would be unseasonably churlish enough to point out that National Express used to run trains on the East Coast main line until the firm handed back the keys, and then had the East Anglia rail franchise taken away.

The now-traditional Boxing Day strike by London Underground drivers looks like going ahead. The Tube drivers want triple time and an extra day off for working on the bank holiday. How can passengers arriving at Heathrow airport reach central London on  26 December? By National Express coach to Victoria Coach Station. Even though they run only every three hours, that’s better than the Heathrow Express. Like almost every other UK train, the rail link between central London and Britain’s busiest airport is suspended on 25 and 26 December. Nothing to do with strikes, or snow – just a collective unwillingness to provide even a skeleton service to help. Of all the airport trains, only the Stansted Express will run on Boxing Day.

Jingle Belle all the way to Brighton

First Capital Connect normally connects three key transport hubs: Luton airport, the St Pancras Eurostar terminal in London, and Gatwick. Not on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, though. But it is heartening to report on a joyful journey.

Oh, what fun it was to ride on last Saturday’s 10.10am from Bedford to Brighton. According to the timetable, this was just another train plodding from the Great Ouse to the south coast in the regulation 2 hours 15 minutes. But those of us lucky enough to be on board discovered the closest you will find to the Polar Express this side of Lapland. I joined it at London Bridge, the station to which The Shard is welded.In honour of the Brighton Belle, the Pullman train that ran to Brighton until it was axed 40 years ago, I christened the train the Jingle Belle.

Santa’s helpers had evidently been busy, because the train was decorated with purple tinsel. On-board entertainment included face-painting (intended for youngsters, not passengers who had just arrived on an overnight flight at Gatwick). A lady made festive decorations using balloons and dexterity, and a conjurer relied only on the latter. In an impressive repertoire, his finest trick was using close-up magic to make the time between Three Bridges and Haywards Heath disappear.

First Capital Connect’s executives were also in evidence: the Integration and Partnership Manager was last seen wearing a jolly Santa hat and passing through the train collecting litter.

In praise of the elf service

The first-class compartment at the front of the train had been converted into Santa’s Grotto. The man in red, flanked by elves in green, dispensed jollity and chocolate coins. (Don’t try passing the tasty, foil-clad treats off on board as legal tender, because the day job of at least one elf is Revenue Control Officer.)

As the train burrowed beneath the South Downs through Clayton Tunnel, members of St Albans Rotary Club jingled tins. By the time the train wheezed to a halt at Brighton’s magnificent terminus, the tins were filled (with real money, not chocolate coins) and I was filled with admiration at the efforts of the railwaymen and women to instil some festive fun into train travel. The season ticket of goodwill, indeed.