A railway with no passengers

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The Independent Online
TRAVELLING by train to London from Tyneside last week, I and about 600 other passengers found ourselves within 10 minutes' distance of a bomb that had just exploded outside Stevenage station. We were de-trained, as they say, at nearby Hitchin. That was where the distinction between 'customer' and 'passenger' became palpable and the Balkanisation of British Rail became apparent as an absurdity.

Emergencies are the jagged edge of everyday life. They reveal what is usually hidden about the systems that support our existence. And so it was last week. The day after the Stevenage bomb came the explosive revelation that the Government had intruded on Railtrack's purported autonomy by blocking the pay offer to signalling staff. The events appeared to be unconnected. But both exposed the bad faith behind the reorganisation of the railways.

The promoters of privatisation promise that the railways will be renewed by their liberation from government control and the fragmentation of a monolith. But last week's debacle of the disappearing pay offer exposed Railtrack as more than ever a government railway.

The metamorphosis from passenger to customer was never neutral; it signified a revolution in relationships that was a prelude to privatisation. A customer is merely a purchaser whose identity is embodied in the act of buying. A passenger is more than a purchaser: a traveller whose journeys are less a private than a public endeavour.

A passenger used to mean a person travelling aboard ship and later, according to the Oxford dictionary, a person travelling in a 'public conveyance'. So, as passengers, we have expectations of our journeys that transcend departing and arriving; we are not only people on the move, but people being taken and being taken care of. On public conveyances, travellers eat and drink, gamble, sleep, go to the toilet, wash, wander about and telephone their nearest and dearest. They make themselves at home.

A memorable British Rail advertisement celebrated this domestication of mobile public spaces: to the snoozy sound of Leon Redbone singing 'relax', a penguin took the time to read and passengers took their shoes off and played chess. Another advertising campaign, which featured a little girl seeking help from a porter, represented a collective fantasy about public safety and service.

A passenger buys a ticket to more than a destination. Rites of duty and dependence imbue the relationship between travellers and public servants - railway staff, air hostesses, seafarers, couriers, sherpas. Passengers are entering spaces and using services that are inherently social.

Dependence is dignified by the discipline of service. But the notion of dependence as helpless and hopeless has made it an

un-word in fin de siecle Britain. Passengers are both autonomous and needy and that is why the word has been purged in the prelude to privatisation.

A while ago, when the guards' announcements across train Tannoys began to welcome customers, rather than passengers, travellers smiled and didn't take it seriously. But this was our introduction to the new era in which the railways were trying to be anything but a public conveyance.

According to a spokesperson at BR Business, acts of terrorism exempt the company from its obligations under the Passenger's Charter. Those 600 evacuees beached at Hitchin station last week were thus reliant not on the company's duty to serve, but on its goodwill. The spokesperson insisted that the company honoured a 'moral' obligation, for which, presumably, we should be grateful. We should wonder why terrorism is exempted since, like leaves or the wrong snow, it seems to be an inevitable source of disruption. More important, we are entitled to wonder why, in a crisis, a national system is suddenly exposed as an arbitrary aggregate of 30 operating companies at the very moment when we need it to be a national service.

Buses were organised to take people to London; those travelling to airports for holiday flights were urged to take taxis. Passengers were not sure that their tickets would be valid on the buses and taxis and there was no representative from Railtrack to offer reassurance, either to the passengers or the poor staff trying to manage the mess. Our problem was that our train was Great Northern, the track was Railtrack and Hitchin, it seemed, was neither.

Balkanisation barely makes business sense, but it makes even less service sense. Already, passengers to Gatwick endure the insanity of non-interchangeable tickets. Last week I asked an InterCity man wielding a timetable whether a combination of connections from west to east would be faster than a direct little choo-choo across the Pennines. He said he couldn't tell me because the little train was not his business, it was run by Regional Railways and their staff had been 'banned by their gaffers from talking to us'.

We have always blamed the British worker for truculent service and strikes, but since British Rail has cultivated 'business' rather than 'service' then clearly the blame lies with the corporate culture of the railways and their banker, the Treasury.