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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Buddy DeFranco
people
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
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

    Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Day In a Page

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month