I took a train from London to Manchester on Thursday, as I do quite regularly. As it pulled out of Euston station, the announcements – always so many announcements – began.
“There will be no hot drinks available on this service.” Strike one. “For the first 20 minutes of this journey the buffet car [which has no hot drinks] will be cash only. There will be no card payments until the machine has charged up.” How retro. Strike two.
And then there was the issue that they didn’t announce – namely that because the electrics were clearly on the blink, the doors to the toilets could not be locked so they were effectively out of order, too. Unless you wanted to run the risk of exposing yourself on a particularly dynamic lean of the Pendolino. Strike three.
Still, I thought, at least I have a seat and the train is running to time. But at a cost of £80.60 for a single in standard class at the very off-peak hour of 3pm, somewhere to sit and arriving on schedule are the least one might expect. For that price, arguably, one should not only have hot water, working toilets and the ability to buy a pack of Walkers Shortbread Fingers on Switch at will, but also free gin and tonic, a lending library of the latest Booker shortlist and complimentary phone chargers at every seat. There is not even free wi-fi in standard class. To stay online, very patchily, from London to Manchester costs £6.
And this was one of my better journeys up north. Everyone in the land could tell a tale of woe about cancelled services, delays, a ruined Christmas or having to stand outside a toilet all the way from Newcastle to Edinburgh. Last year, 400,000 angry tweets were sent by commuters to the 14 train companies that run services into London. Of those, 62,352 featured the words “crowd” “no seat” and “sardine”. The UK’s train service is rubbish and everyone knows it.
Travel agenda - 30/01/15
Travel agenda - 30/01/15
1/8 Potter around
The original Hogwarts Express steam engine will be on display at the Harry Potter Warner Bros Studio Tour from 19 March, as well as a recreation of Platform 9¾. The new permanent section offers visitors the chance to climb aboard the train and to pose with a luggage trolley as it disappears through the platform's wall. wbstudiotour.co.uk
2/8 Night at height
Night at height
Airbnb is giving one person and three of their friends the chance to spend a night at 2,700m, by transforming one of Courchevel's cable cars into a bedroom. The one-off "room", available on 6 March, will have beds for four and a living area, and will leave you in prime position to hit the slopes the following morning. To enter, visit Courchevel's listing on Airbnb and explain why you'd like to win. Entry closes 26 February. airbnb.co.uk
3/8 Explore Asia
River-cruise company Pandaw has launched a new tour operation, Pandaw Expeditions. It offers flight-inclusive package holidays to Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and India, all with a cruise element, plus hotels and sightseeing tours. pandawexpeditions.co.uk
4/8 Puglia plus
One of the joys of travelling in South-east Italy is the network of train services run by Ferrovie del Sud Est. It stretches from Bari to Taranto, and the new February edition of the European Rail Timetable (£15.99) contains a summary of services in Puglia. europeanrailtimetable.eu
5/8 Secret Peru
Now is the time to head to Peru's "second Machu Picchu", the fortress of Kuelap, if you want to beat the crowds. The Peruvian government has announced plans for a new cable car, which will improve access to the archaeological site in the north of the country, potentially quadrupling the number of visitors. It is due to open in 2016.
6/8 Hotel revamp
London's The Goring hotel has closed for the first time in its 104-year history as it undergoes an extensive renovation, involving four interior designers; Nina Campbell, Tim Gosling, David Linley and Russell Sage, who have redesigned the suites, the bar and lounge, the terrace, and the dining room. The hotel will reopen on 21 February, just in time for its 105th birthday celebration. thegoring.com
7/8 Iberia expands
After shrinking the network from its Madrid hub, Iberia is growing again. Five weekly services to Havana are restored on 1 June. On 3 July a new thrice-weekly triangular route is launched to Colombia, stopping first in Medellín and second in Cali. iberia.com
8/8 Go slow
Journeys of Distinction has a new "slow travel" collection, combining classic tours with river cruises or rail. Among the new packages is a 16-day Transylvania and Medieval Europe itinerary, from Istanbul (above) to Prague, and a 21-day Grand Tour of Europe, from Amsterdam to Budapest. jod.uk.com
Everyone including Mark Carne, the chief executive of Network Rail, who gave a speech this week in which he branded the railways “a bit of a scrapheap”, which is true. He also said that Network Rail is the company “people love to hate”, which is nonsense. Ask any harassed commuter on any concourse from Paddington to Piccadilly and they would far rather their journey was in the hands of a company they loved to love, but Network Rail is so very proficient at making itself unlovable, to the point of being unusable at times.
That must change, said Carne. Network Rail’s reputation must move away from “stale sandwiches, leaves on the line, and the wrong kind of snow” to a more competent, and crucially, more “caring” organisation. He outlined two main problems with the railways: they are untidy – littered with scrap rail, old sleepers and graffiti – and the company that runs them is too “macho”. His solution: hire more women to tidy them up. If you want walls scrubbed, stations cleaned and better sandwiches, then a woman’s your man. They can probably help with the caring stuff, too.
That is not quite the full story. Carne also blamed the male-heavy culture at Network Rail – only 14 per cent of its staff are women – for wider operational problems. The injury rate among workers is infeasibly high, about 600 a year, because of the prevailing, testosterone-fuelled attitude to safety.
Having worked in the oil business until he took over at Network Rail in 2013, Carne pointed out how the “extreme macho, and frankly unsafe, culture” on the oil and gas rigs had changed in the 1970s when they started hiring more women in more visible positions. All women with the appropriate qualifications for a vacancy at Network Rail will be guaranteed an interview, he said.
Of course there should be more women. Why not? I admit, gender politics are not the first thing to spring to mind when I hear the dreaded words “engineering works” or “rail replacement bus service”, but I’m sure a woman, caring or not, can sort out the network’s failures as well as the next man.
How the organisation goes about tackling its problems, and who tackles them, is of minor interest to the average passenger, but tackle them it must. Overrunning engineering works, staff shortages, inflated ticket prices, overcrowded commuter trains, and endless, empty first-class carriages are the things that matter on the daily grind. Fresher sandwiches, nicer stations and more caring railways can probably wait. We’re used to waiting, after all.Reuse content