Simon Calder: The golden age of rail - long gone or on track?

The man who pays his way

The passengers gathering for Thursday morning's 7.08am from King's Cross station had a keen sense about their golden age of rail travel. The clue was in their destination: Carlisle, not a station served by scheduled trains from the terminus. They were booked aboard a charter train, being run for enthusiasts and using 1960s rolling stock in crimson and cream livery (a colour scheme soon christened "blood and custard").

It could hardly be described as a nostalgia express: the train trundled north on the slow line, and took twice as long as the normal 20 minutes to reach Stevenage. All the more time to revel in the good old days of the railways, as expresses race by at 125mph.

It is marvellous that we celebrate Britain's railway heritage, and that enthusiatists are so dedicated to preserving the best from our pioneering past. But as Sir Roy McNulty's hard-hitting new report, Realising the Potential of GB Rail points out, the problems that beset 21st-century rail travellers are hangovers from as far back as the Victorians.

Some good news: rail travel has never been safer, and trains are twice as reliable as they were in the awful year of 2001 following the Hatfield rail crash. In 15 years, rail use has risen by 60 per cent. In any normal industry, you would expect economies of scale to mean costs rising by a much lower figure. Not on the railways, because of the inefficiencies built into the system. If a ticket machine at a station needs replacing, says Sir Roy, the task involves "at least 10 decision-making stages".

When Network Rail needs access over private land, landowners can "extract ransom payments" because such transactions are still governed by the Railway Regulation Act of 1842 – a year, no doubt, that some later Victorians regarded as the golden age of rail travel.

Equally anachronistic are the old British Rail terms and conditions that still apply in many parts of the network. The report found that many drivers spend less than half their working hours actually driving trains, because of antiquated agreements on rest breaks – the same kind of deals that regard Sunday working as optional, with the entire operation run on overtime.

Yet the very people who have allowed this picture of inefficiency to prevail – the directors of Network Rail and train operating companies – have enjoyed pay rises 20 per cent above the UK average over the past three years. It adds up to an expensive insult from the rail industry to both passengers and taxpayers.

If you think things can only get better, you're in luck. On Monday, expect much ministerial rejoicing at the "Eureka" timetable to be introduced this weekend on the East Coast Main Line. It heralds the first Leeds-London trip in under two hours, and the return of sub-four hour trains between Edinburgh and London. A welcome development, which has already persuaded easyJet to drop its Newcastle-Stansted flight, but really only tinkering around the edges: the faster times apply only on one train each day, and southbound only.

The UK enjoys easily the most efficient aviation system in Europe. Unless our railways get equally fit for purpose, to provide the mobility that Britain needs, we may soon mourn the golden age of the railway, circa 2011.

The last refuge of the standard-class scoundrel

Step aboard the 5.50am from Edinburgh to King's Cross, and you are transported to a place even better than a land of milk and honey: the train of bacon and eggs. The enticing aroma that only bacon on the point of perfection can deliver (to non-vegetarians, at least) mingles with a comforting waft of grilling toast.

Add the promise of Cumberland sausages and mushrooms and tea, and you are all set for the UK's flagship route.

As cities, seashores and meadows blur past, transport blends blissfully with gastronomy.

Until yesterday, even standard-class passengers could enjoy all this: if first-class ticket holders didn't fill the dining car, £14 bought breakfast and an upgrade for as long as you could plausibly linger.

This weekend, the dining car disappears, removing the last refuge of the standard-class scoundrel. It becomes more seating for first-class passengers, who now get free at-seat meals. Yet a solution now awaits on arrival in London: cross the road to St Pancras station, where the magnificent Booking Office restaurant serves a fine full English with flair.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?