Mark Steel: Beware – the rail companies are out to get you

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Modern train ticket collectors do a marvellous job. Coming back from Bristol to London, one of them told me: "Because this is a non-saver train, I'll have to charge you an additional £69." And he didn't flinch, collapse into hysterics or even blush. He must regularly face the same bemused grimace whenever he says those words, a stare no different to the one he'd face if he said: "Sorry sir, because this is a non-transferrable Quicksave ticket, I'll have to sleep with your daughter."

Because bit by bit the train companies have quietly raised fares to this comedy level by deft use of the phrase "peak time". For example, a return from London to Manchester that drifts into this time zone is now two hundred and thirty quid. Or to be grammatically correct two hundred and thirty bloody quid, you thieving cockroaches. Because "peak time" now means any train that leaves before 9.30am, or that leaves between 3.15pm and 6.15pm, or that left within those times even if it's later than that when it gets to you. So that soon if you ask which times are peak time, they'll say: "Anytime in 1963. Except for Fridays."

The train companies claim that cheap fares are available, but that's only if you book up way in advance for a precise seat on a precise train with no alterations and a series of regulations, so you'd be worried the collector would say: "I'm afraid this Extra Super Saver ticket is only valid if you go through the journey without starting any sentence with a vowel. No I'm sorry sir, we do count "y" as a vowel, so that will be another three thousand pounds and nine pence."

Next they'll boast: "For customers wishing to enjoy the convenience of our services on a low budget, why not take advantage of our "Dream Ticket Imagi-journey" offer, which allows you to imagine travelling from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly for only £28 return. *Customers who imagine travelling on to Preston or the Lake District will be liable to a surcharge of £97.60."

Until recently the restrictions weren't so tight on journeys going towards London, but now peak time also includes any train that arrives there before 11am. So I rang the National Rail Enquiries Press Office and was told: "Well why do people not book in advance? You wouldn't wake up in the morning and suddenly say: 'I want to go to Rome', so why do it with Manchester?"

So it's our fault, with our inconvenient spontaneity. How is anyone supposed to organise an efficient transport system with people wandering about on a whim like that? Maybe the whole country could be divided into tiny squares and we could inform the council every Monday which one we're likely to gad about in during the week. And maybe this is what caused Fascism. Mussolini had to march on Rome because his Monster Saver Awayday Rail Ticket wasn't valid unless booked three months in advance.

The other sly alteration they've made is that almost half of most trains now seem to be first class. So maybe the first-class carriages are eating the second-class ones seat by seat. Whatever the reason, you arrive at the platform and walk past rows and rows of twee lamps and tablecloths before getting to the peasants' cabins where you all squash in, and elect a delegate to find the one toilet in your quarters that isn't broken.

Eventually the driver will be about to set off, and the guard will tap him on the shoulder and say: "Sorry sir, this is first class now, you can't drive from in here without paying a supplement of £800," and he'll have to operate it by remote control from the buffet bar.

The collectors themselves are often defiantly helpful, and after explaining to stunned pensioners or a disbelieving Chinese couple that they need to hand over their worldly possessions to get to Stoke, they give them a wink and let them off. But the companies are not so benevolent. "No private company is going to run a railway because they want to run a railway. They have a duty to their shareholders," I was told by a PR man.

Which is why that train from Bristol was almost empty. And why, when this Government claims it cares about carbon emissions, they don't mean it. And why the film Brief Encounter couldn't be made now. Because Celia Johnson would meet Trevor Howard at the station and say: "I'm afraid, darling, it's going to be so terribly terribly difficult to see you again. You see, the 9.19 from Worthing is now a peak time service which is so dreadfully costly and your wretched railcard is no longer valid on the 3.32 from Basingstoke and it's all due to those frightful beasts who run the confounded private railways."