Train gains

Is there such a thing as a family-friendly carriage? Deborah Jackson investigates
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The Independent Travel
Joseph, aged two-and-three-quarters, decided that the people on the next table were baddies. "Zap!" he shouted, shooting them one by one with his stubby finger, "Zap you naughty baddies! You dead!" The passengers, very much alive, smiled wanly. This was only the beginning of a long journey.

Train travel with small children has never been my idea of fun. The first five minutes of excitement swiftly give way to cries of "Are we there yet?", spilled drinks and repeated trips to the toilet. Adult passengers give you a wide berth as you settle in with enough accessories to open a branch of Mothercare. But perhaps this time, it would be different. We booked ourselves on to Great Western's new "Family Carriage". "With a whole coach set aside just for mums, dads and children," says the promotional leaflet, "the Family Carriage is sure to put a smile on everyone's face."

Unfortunately, not everyone else had been informed. Carriage E, designated for families, is at the heart of the train, next to the buffet car. This is as convenient for child-free travellers as it is for mums and dads, and by the time we boarded at Bath, it was busy with ordinary passengers.

Time for Great Western's free activity packs. Aimed at seven-to-11-year- olds, these are a useful antidote to tedious trips. The magazine, Out and About, contains articles, jokes and puzzles which kept Frances, nine, and Alice, nearly seven, happily amused. There were also postcards and pencils, but the leads broke within minutes. No sharpener was provided.

Joseph soon had enough of scribbling. What he really needed - what all toddlers need - was space: the kind of space you find on French long-distance trains. Joseph was intent on exploring his new territory, despite its being stuffed with adult bodies. First, he walked all over us, then he raced his toy car along the seats. Finally, he headed for the gangway and lodged himself inside the luggage compartment.

On the way home, the carriage was again full of grown-ups. I told a young mother about the activity packs. We agreed the family carriage was a great idea and that staff had been helpful - but that window stickers were not enough to bring families together. Then I looked at Joseph. His face was covered in chocolate bean cookie, and he was Travelling with a Smile.

The Family Carriage is available at weekends and on selected weekday services during school holidays. Great Western trains run from Hereford, Fishguard and Penzance into Paddington. Children aged five to 15 travel half price, under-fives free. On a Family Railcard, children travel for pounds 2 each. Reservations are advisable. Travel information: 0345 484950.

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