Janet Street-Porter: It's time to get our trains back on track

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The Independent Online

Today I'm in mourning for the demise of GNER as franchise holder for the East Coast mainline. It seems there is final proof that this government couldn't give a stuff about railways.

First, they make the company pay £300m more than other bidders to renew their franchise in April 2005, extracting the extortionate sum of £1.3bn in the process. Then the same government department grants a £1.4bn subsidy to Virgin trains to operate the West Coast route to Scotland. Finally, when GNER's parent company ran into financial difficulties, they were offered no helping hand, in spite of running an excellent service.

For years I've commuted on GNER trains. In spite of all the price rises, the ludicrous parking charges, the self-congratulatory notices at York claiming that the number of trains on time runs about 90 per cent, I have an enormous affection and respect for the company's staff.

GNER serves excellent food, provides internet access, has the friendliest and most helpful staff, and its trains are always clean. A drop in business after the July 2005 bombings and high fares meant that revenues in the first year of the company's second franchise period grew only 3.3 per cent, instead of the 10 per cent that was needed for financial viability. There are a lot of annoying things about GNER, but they are common to all of the franchises. On Radio 4, a spokesman for the operators was attacked by listeners because it's not possible to buy cheap tickets from station machines. He wouldn't accept that the UK we has the most ludicrously convoluted ticket-purchasing system in Europe. Train travel is about providing a service and, unlike most of the service industries in Britain, GNER has trained its staff extremely well.

Thousands of these men and women are worried because they do not know whether the new franchise owners will utilise their skills on the trains, at the administrative offices in York, or at the call centres in Newcastle. The East Coast line connects the constituencies of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling with London, and I await with interest their assessment of how any new operator can possibly improve on GNER. Look North, the BBC's regional news programme in the North-east, pointed out that none of the operators shortlisted for the franchise (Arriva, FirstGroup, National Express, or Virgin-Stagecoach) had the efficiency record of GNER. But if all the Government wants is big money, that's irrelevant.

If Virgin is successful, it will have a monopoly of the major rail links to Scotland - can that really be good for competitive business? First operate trains between London and the West Country, and, having travelled between London and Bristol a few times lately, I offer my sympathies to anyone who has to do this regularly. My trains were old and dirty, the food was awful, there were no plugs for computers and no internet access.

Another problem is the spectre of homophobic Brian Souter, the boss of Stagecoach, having anything to do with my travel arrangements. Call me nuts, but I would rather do anything than give my cash to someone who donated a million pounds to try to prevent the Government repealing Clause 28. A man who used such unpleasant tactics to drive other bus companies out of business - for example, offering free bus journeys in Darlington - that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission called them "predatory and deplorable". Tough times if you travel by train.

Is this the end of zero tolerance?

Hold the front page: John Lewis has used a woman who has a normal-sized body to promote their swimwear! So out of the ordinary is this in the wacky world of fashion, the company issued a press release to capitalise on the size zero debate. Interestingly, Lauren Moller, the attractive young woman in question hails from South Africa, which raises the question why none of our top model agencies could find a female with the politically correct body mass index residing within the UK. I know the backside of the average British female is a substantial size 16, and it's true that our waists have expanded to a chunky 34 inches, but I can't help feeling this is an own goal from one of our favourite retailers, especially as John Lewis still uses size 10 mannequins in their stores.

* It's Lent, and I don't plan to give up anything, except perhaps reading anything that emanates from our Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. The other day I heard him telling an interviewer that his plans for 2007 included a "sabbatical" - it can't be a reward for increasing the number of believers, which are in terminal decline.

As the Anglican Church turns on the liberal members of its flock, and orders them not to consecrate any more gay bishops or authorise any more same-sex blessings, a bright spark back home has launched the Love Life Live Lent initiative, which asks followers of the C of E to share jokes online, as long as they are clean, of course. The new way to spread the word of God is by making people laugh, and in Birmingham they plan to launch a Christian comedy club - I'm sure the plight of gay Christians in Africa will have them rolling in the aisles.

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