Philip Hensher: A train company that turns passengers into victims

Competition in the railways has contrived to bring us institutions as atrocious as First Great Western
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The Independent Online

First Great Western (FGW) is an enormous operation, one which supplies a vital service to a huge stretch of the country. Its responsibilities can hardly be carried out with the whims and casual fits of entrepreneurial eccentricity which a private company can normally indulge in. We are all supposed to travel more by train these days. You would never have thought that FGW had ever considered that imperative, so off-putting is the experience of travelling with them.

Before Christmas, FGW achieved such a level of cancellations that, if accurately reported, it would have breached the cancellation threshold in its contract to supply the service. Purely coincidentally, according to the train service, its methods of calculating cancellations developed an error, with the result that the number of cancellations appeared to fall within the permissible threshold. An honest mistake, according to the company. Let us take our own view of that.

The Transport secretary, Ruth Kelly, has imposed a £29m package of improvements on the company. FGW is to double its miserly compensation rates and, after 2009, increase them by a further 50 per cent. An extra half a million of the cheapest off-peak tickets are to be made available in the year from April. Additional trains and carriages are to be supplied on some of the busiest routes. Failure to comply with these stipulations is to lead to the loss of the franchise altogether.

One's immediate response is: that would be good, so long as we can guarantee that some of the most incompetent and impertinent individuals lost their jobs altogether. I use the service from London to Exeter every week, and, when in Devon, use FGW trains every day. It's staggeringly inconvenient, ill-run, overcrowded and disorganised. A year or so ago, the company effectively raised the basic cost of a London to Exeter return by around 15 per cent by the simple means of abolishing the cheapest ticket category.

The only way of acquiring a ticket at a lower rate than the full £59 was to book in advance for a specific train; the tickets go so quickly that, in my experience, you have to book a full six weeks in advance. Who, with a life, knows what train they will want to catch every single week, six weeks in advance? So you might as well turn up on the day.

To maximise its income, the train company sells as many tickets tied to specific reservations as it possibly can, even if these tickets are sold at full price. The result is, invariably, a train filled with reserved seats. The trains are full of desperate families roaming up and down, trying to find a seat both empty and unreserved. The ticket checkers spend half their time explaining to infrequent travellers that, since they were unfortunate enough to miss the train they booked for, they are going to have to buy a completely new ticket, not just any additional cost – an egregious piece of nastiness.

The whole thing stinks, and no one can doubt that FGW regards its customers as inconvenient sources of necessary money, rather than people who would like to be offered a service. If you try to buy a ticket on a train, you are quite likely to be told off in the most impertinent way by the ticket collector. On the other hand, the ticket machine at my local station in Devon has been adjusted in a way which, if deliberate, would only be regarded as fraudulent, to demand peak ticket prices for off-peak trains. No doubt that, and other pieces of apparent sharp practice, are regarded by FGW, too, as "more cock-up than conspiracy".

All I can say is that it suits them it well, and it seems in no hurry to make changes once problems have been brought to its attention, so long as it is benefiting the firm financially.

Let's face it: this is a company which is astonished to discover, every single day of the week, that its customers might conceivably want to buy a sandwich from the train buffet at lunchtime. It is probably a little bit too stupid to do anything really complicated, such as run a train service.

Competition in the rail network has utterly failed to produce major improvements in service, and has somehow contrived to give birth to institutions as atrocious as FGW. If only the Government could be persuaded to regard the rail network as quite as vital to national life as the NHS; if only it could be persuaded to treat the railways with the same largesse as some dopey bank called Northern Rock, even...

Of course, it won't happen. The absolute most that will occur is the terrible trains we use will one day be run by another, different terrible company. There might, you never know, one day be an information board at Topsham station so that you know when the train has been cancelled. But I wouldn't have thought anyone would be in much danger of losing their job, or anything.