Philip Hensher: Hop on a train? It's easier to fly abroad

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The Independent Online

This is a small, but I am afraid, horribly familiar story of customer service nowadays. Every week, I travel to Exeter to teach creative writing, usually travelling on Monday morning and coming back to London on Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning. A month or so ago, I went to Paddington and asked for the same ticket I always get.

"That's £59, please," the lady said. "That's gone up," I said. "It's usually £51." "No," she said. "It hasn't gone up, that's the same price the Saver Ticket always is." "Well, I want the Super Saver," I said. "It's after 10 o'clock, isn't it?" One gets expert in these refined gradations. "No, that doesn't exist any more," she said. "You'll have to buy the Saver."

"So," I said. "You've effectively put up your cheapest ticket by £8, which is, what, 15 per cent?" "No," she said, quite outraged. "You'll find that we've introduced all sorts of much cheaper fares if you look online. I think the cheapest is £12. It's all in the interests of customer convenience." "Well, I'll have your cheapest fare," I said. "That'll be £59," she said. "I see," I said.

Later, recovering from the horrible traumas of a journey in the hands of First Great Western, I looked up the new travelling arrangements and found that, after a fashion, the lady was right. There are, indeed, £12 fares to be had, although she might have mentioned that that is a one-way fare. There is a positively Byzantine structure of different fares, dozens of them, up as far as £239 for a first-class open return.

I tried to find a cheaper fare for next week's journey, and eventually found a £23.50 single on a train I might conceivably, with a little re-arrangement of my affairs, want to catch. However, there was no return to be had under £58, which was not an improvement. After about an hour of hunting, I eventually found a train on a Monday in October for £12, and a return for £23.50. In other words, if I could arrange a week of my life, three months in advance, around two specific trains, then I might save as much as £15.50 on the fare as it used to be. Of course, I would have to go on doing this indefinitely, which would mean that no one could ever arrange any kind of meeting at less than three months' notice.

I wouldn't make any kind of fuss about this - I mean, we all know that the train companies are run by money-grubbing crooks. What really makes you grind your teeth and want to throttle their hapless operatives is the suggestion that such changes are being introduced for customer convenience.

I have no trouble with the suggestion that convenience is behind the idea that we should all buy our tickets long in advance, that we should arrange our lives around the railway timetable, and that anyone foolish enough to want to turn up at Exeter railway station and get on the next train to London should be asked to pay a hefty premium. What I have trouble with is the suggestion that it's our convenience, or anyone's but the operators'.

It used to be quite easy to catch a train. Now, it's not just easier but usually cheaper to buy a plane ticket to most European capitals. We are, every day, confronted by the large-scale contempt of companies for their customers, but few so outrageous as the suggestion that, from now on, if we want to travel somewhere by train, we can get a cheaper ticket by booking specific seats, three whole months in advance - at least, that's been my experience. Otherwise, it's gone up by five times the rate of inflation. Sod it, I'm learning to drive.

The man who spooks our spooks

I was in a bar in Vauxhall on Friday night, waiting for a friend, and found myself eavesdropping on the people on the next table. They had the same grey-suit-and-dandruff look of all junior civil servants, but, I slowly realised, they were in fact junior MI6 officers. You wouldn't have looked at these people twice; which I suppose is rather the point.

Naturally, I was absolutely gripped. It's not often you get to see the people on whom the security of the nation rests, or get to overhear their talk. In the interests of not being assassinated, I won't pass any of it on, and most of it, anyway, was on the "that bitch downstairs" level.

Nice to know, however, that the spooks enjoyed Ricky Gervais's The Office as much as the rest of us. MI6, I discover, have their own name for MI5, just over the river. Inspired by David Brent's nemesis Neil and his sinister underlings, they call MI5 "The Swindon office".

* The chief executive of Camelot wrote in last week. I had described the National Lottery as "a tax on idiocy", and she, taking this as a criticism of it, listed all the splendid things the Lottery has achieved. "Far from idiotic", she said. I absolutely agree. The Lottery is a terrific thing. I have no idea why I gave any other impression. A tax on idiocy is an absolutely excellent idea. The wonderful thing about the Lottery is that it is perfectly self-selecting, a lovely voluntary tax. Some people buy tickets in order to contribute to a good cause, but I fear most seriously suppose they might win. If you can persuade enough very stupid people that they might stand a chance of winning a large sum of money, then, as we can see, you very quickly amass enough money to build fine new museums and art galleries all over the country. Tax idiocy, and use the proceeds to fund the products of the mind. Who could possibly object to that?

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