Simon Calder: Rail companies ride the gravy train to utter nonsense

Reassuringly expensive: that used to be the slogan for Stella Artois. The makers of the Belgian lager sought to make money by emphasising the beer's high price. Something equally strange is happening with Britain's train operators: they make more money by pretending they are slower than they really are.

When I consulted the National Rail website for a trip on the West Coast main line between Penrith and London, it urged me to board a train that was heading for the terminus at Euston – but then to change, not once but twice. And all because of the ridiculous way we run our railways.

An old joke maintained that the British Rail timetable should be filed in the library under "fiction", as the trains invariably took longer than promised. In the 21st century the national rail schedules deserve the same classification – but because they are unduly pessimistic. For proof, just consult the timetable for Britain's busiest station pair: Waterloo and Vauxhall on the south bank of the Thames. Leaving Waterloo, the journey takes three minutes; but coming from Vauxhall, trains are asserted to take as much as 11 minutes.

Railways companies used to boast about how fast they were – these days, they set out to show just how slow they go. Why? Targets, of course. If too many trains miss their punctuality targets, then the operator pays compensation. A simple way to limit the number of services that are designated as "late" is to allow a large margin for error.

This padding causes the National Rail Enquiries computer to generate some ludicrous instructions. On that trip from Cumbria to London, the traveller in a hurry is instructed to get off at the express's last station before Euston, Milton Keynes. You wait here for a few minutes, and take the following express train, which is also bound for Euston – but has an additional call at Watford Junction. Here, you leave the fast train to change for a following, slower service. But because this train has less slack built into the schedule, it is due to reach Euston ahead of both the previous expresses. The computer thinks it is doing you a time-saving favour in recommending two changes of trains, all because of a fanciful schedule dreamt up as a fine-avoidance scheme.

MY TRIP to Holland earlier this month by rail and ship was not without its challenges. "I have no idea about anything," confessed the lady at the Informatie booth at Rotterdam Central station. "Go to platform 9 and wait." This was the penultimate leg in my attempt to cover the modest couple of hundred miles between London and the Dutch resort of Zandvoort by surface travel. I finally made it 15 hours after leaving the capital, aboard what is imaginatively described as the Boat Train.

This was a four-coach commuter train that had been pressed into service from London Liverpool Street to Harwich. It had a load factor of perhaps 125 per cent – five passengers for every four seats – and no usable space for luggage except the aisles and door areas. The sequence of unexplained stops at every signal between Romford and Gidea Park indicated something was awry, and the train stuttered into Colchester 15 minutes late. Here, we were told we were going nowhere. A freight locomotive had set off north an hour earlier to rescue a broken-down express and had not been heard of since; perhaps the Colchester-Manningtree-Harwich axis is Britain's own Bermuda Triangle.

Eventually we made it to Parkeston Quay and boarded a very restful ferry. Next morning, though, there was nothing relaxed about the onward journey. A decade or two ago, a fleet of trans-continental trains would have been waiting to depart for destinations such as Hamburg, Berlin and Cologne. Now, you just wait for a little Dutch commuter train to appear.

Or not, in the case of the first two scheduled departures, which were no-shows. Then we were marched to a far-flung platform, where a train finally took us to Rotterdam – where the entire Netherlands Railways network appeared to have gone into meltdown. This explained the information lady's complete absence of her stock-in-trade.

But sometimes no information is better than some, at least for users of the National Rail website.

A driver shows his true colours

The internet has democratised travel writing, with bloggers documenting journeys to the end of the street or the ends of the earth. One of the best is Findingfatty. com, about one man's bid to cycle to the south of France to raise cash for the Oundle School Mencap Holiday. He wears a fluorescent green Chelsea away strip, with "London to Monte Carlo" (above) printed on it – though he stresses: "I'm not going to Monte Carlo, I'm going to the first beach I come to in the South of France. But in the shop it was hard to know which beach that would be."

Reading the account, it appears 25 July was the worst day, with rain and strong winds "right in my face like an angry bouncer". Then a car pulls parallel with the bike, and the driver winds down his window.

"Hello mate, where are you going?"

"La Rochelle."

"Long way to go in this weather. Fancy a lift?"

"Love one."

"Well you can piss off then, I hate Chelsea."

With a smile, he drives off.

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