Friday 17 November 2000
Give them a piece of our 'Mind the Gap'
There's nothing like a bit of death to get Railtrack moving. I'd volunteer myself, except...
The next-door village to us is called Freshford and has its very own railway station, where trains still stop on request. Yes, you actually put your hand out, and the driver hoots as if to say, "OK, I've seen you and I'm stopping, so you can put your hand down," and then stops. I was once waiting there when a train came towards the station, somebody waved, and the train screeched to a halt
beyond the station. The guard put his head out and roared, "We don't stop here!", and then train went on again...
The next-door village to us is called Freshford and has its very own railway station, where trains still stop on request. Yes, you actually put your hand out, and the driver hoots as if to say, "OK, I've seen you and I'm stopping, so you can put your hand down," and then stops. I was once waiting there when a train came towards the station, somebody waved, and the train screeched to a halt beyond the station. The guard put his head out and roared, "We don't stop here!", and then train went on again...
Nice place. Sometimes 125s come through on diversion. Not so long ago they altered one platform to let these big fast trains through safely, and this has created a gap between the platform and any train that stops. It's a big, high gap, too challenging for any but quite a fit and agile passenger, and impossible if you've got a child or push-chair or big case or frail legs. This meant that a great slice of Freshford's inhabitants suddenly couldn't take a train from their own station. Going one way they couldn't climb up on to the train, coming back the other way they couldn't get off unless someone came to meet them with a stool or step ladder (which, I kid you not, has been known).
A local group made protests to Railtrack. Railtrack apologised and made a commitment in writing to do the necessary work last winter. No such work was ever undertaken, as Neville Chamberlain might say, and consequently we are now at war with Railtrack.
Or that is how it seemed last Monday night, when the West Wilts Rail Users association held a regular meeting at the Inn at Freshford to hear representatives from Railtrack and First Great Western. Normally, I gather, there are 20 or 30 present at such meetings. On Monday there were 100, maybe nearer 200, crammed into a sultry upstairs room. No sooner had Andy and Julian, the two railmen, been introduced prior to spelling out the network's future, than objections were raised.
"Hold on one moment!" cried the man next to me. "Everyone here tonight has come because they're worried about the future of Freshford station, not Britain. We want to know about Freshford, and whether it is going to be closed down!"
There was a loud chorus of approval of this, which brought a frown to the chairman's face.
"Look," he said, "this meeting was planned long ago as a general meeting about the rail network. We don't want this meeting to be hijacked by Freshford Station protesters."
"Oh yes we do!" shouted the crowd, in true pantomime fashion.
"Well, let's see what Julian and Andy have to say first," said the chairman, "and perhaps we can talk about Freshford afterwards."
And Andy and Julian then did their presentations on the future of our railways, grimly conscious that nobody present was really interested if it wasn't about Freshford. Andy spelled out Railtrack's noble investment plans. Julian sighed over the terrible overcrowding at Paddington, and everyone waited endlessly to ask questions about Freshford, which then turned out to be a waste of time, because Andy said it wasn't in his remit, and Julian's company doesn't even run trains through Freshford. Julian and Andy were people who thought big, about things like expanding Paddington and putting fresh platforms in at Bristol, and couldn't believe that such an intense meeting had such a small thing on their minds...
But I think that, however parochial outwardly, Freshford has a very big thing on its mind. Has not Gerald Corbett, head of Railtrack, repeatedly said that safety is the overriding concern? Has not Freshford station been reconstructed by Railtrack in such a way that most passengers cannot leave the train safely without the use of a small step ladder? (I find it tricky myself.) How does Railtrack explain the fact that on their network they have a station where it is actually dangerous to leave the train - and where the danger has been created by Railtrack's own work ?
Mark you, the solution seems obvious to me. All that is needed to get Railtrack moving is for a volunteer to get out of a train at Freshford one day, and fall as he alights, and sustain fatal injuries. There is nothing like a bit of death to get Railtrack moving, as we have seen recently. I'd volunteer myself, except that I live in the next-door village to Freshford, and it would seem too much like interfering in their business.
But I'll keep you posted.
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