Last Sunday the new rail timetable started, and a revised fare structure simplifying the confusing range of tickets on offer. In fact, rail travel is just as expensive, and as thoroughly stressful as ever.
Anyone travelling from Northallerton in North Yorkshire to London on the East Coast line on that day had a miserable experience if they had purchased tickets from the newest rail operator in the region, Grand Central. Their evening train was cancelled – with that information only available on their website, with a helpline operating 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday!
The station ticket office was closed by 7pm, and there was no representative of the rail company in evidence. The rival operator, National Express, refused to accept Grand Central tickets, charging more than £100 for a standard ticket to London! Without a credit card or a cheque, passengers would have had to leave the train.
The previous Friday, I arrived at King's Cross to find the 8.04 Grand Central train north was cancelled. The chap on the Information desk, an employee of National Express, was brusque, offering no explanation. With just 15 minutes to go, a Grand Central employee turned up and issued tickets to travel on a National Express train, which left at 8am but didn't stop at my destination. When I got through to Grand Central to complain, I was told that "three out of our four trains are currently being repaired". It's incredible that someone can set up a service in England with just a couple of trains, but that is exactly what has happened.
The East Coast line is one of the most valuable routes in Britain, and passengers living in the thriving Yorkshire towns of Northallerton and Thirsk were thrilled when Grand Central announced they would be operating direct trains to London from Sunderland stopping at both places. From the outset the service had scheduling problems, but tickets were competitively priced and staff friendly, so local businesses and travellers were supportive. But how can a company set itself up with so few trains and no back up when things go wrong?
Grand Central started a basic service last December, with just two trains. They said they planned to lease more. In March, they offered three direct trains in each direction a day. On 13 May they told a local newspaper they planned "expansion in July", but within days they had to cut drasticaly services after one train caught fire, and another needed repairs. I am beginning to think that I could rent a locomotive, apply for a licence and run JSP trains more efficiently than this.
Then there's the scandal of the Orcats payments, whereby all the operators on a route are entitled to receive a share of the total amount spent on non-operator specific (ie full-price flexible) tickets on that line. This isn't determined by the number of passengers carried by each operator, but by the number of seats offered. So even if Grand Central run empty trains and an unreliable service, they are still eligible for these payments.
Making daily changes to your timetable via the internet fails to offer the "high-quality service" promised. Offering customer service during office hours Monday to Friday when you run trains at the weekends is derisory. Any goodwill felt towards this service will surely have evaporated. And the new fare structure means no refunds on advance purchase tickets. I thought the rail regulator protected customers – now I'm not so sure.
Taste-free zone that is Chelsea
This year's Chelsea Flower Show is a hotbed of controversy. Prince Phillip lost his cool with an Aussie garden designer (formerly a male stripper) who had the temerity to correct the Duke's knowledge of tree ferns, then Monty Don dared to say that it "wasn't the best show in Britain... I like shows with a sense of identity. Chelsea should have more London in it".
Monty Don's right. It's a mecca for the worse taste imagineable, and this year's offerings are typical. We all love the Beatles, so the sympathy vote was out in force for the garden designed to "evoke" the life of George Harrison gaining it a medal. It's certainly had the most celebrity visitors, but the metallic star poking out of the delphiniums is simply shocking.
* One of the biggest acts of vandalism perpetrated on beautiful parts of Britain (apart from the proposed eco-towns) are golf courses. How many do we need? They turn dunes and heathland into artificially sculptured zones where no flowers bloom and only fee-paying members can roam. Plus, there's the outrageous use of water needed to maintain them.
But good news for the anti-golf lobby – the oldest golf course in the country is falling into the sea, and Natural England, the government body which protects the countryside, has decreed that the coastline must not be artificially shored up as it is an area of special scientific interest. Twice a year the Royal North Devon Golf Club got locals to replace stones washed away from a pebble bank which protects the sand dunes by the course. Land by the seventh and eighth holes was slipping into the sea at the rate of a metre a year – but Natural England are not interested.