Rail gets its lines crossed

It's like BA telling callers that British Midland is cheaper

Share
Related Topics
If you have had difficulty telephoning railway inquiries, you are not alone. About 20 million of the 60 million annual callers do not get through. Many people no longer even try. The service, long a source of frustration for travellers, has deteriorated dramatically because of increased demand and because it is being reorganised as a result of privatisation.

From next week, there will be one unified national number, 0345 484950, to call for train inquiries from anywhere in the country. Over the past year, this number has been gradually extended to most parts except London and Merseyside.

It should, of course, be a simple matter to provide train information efficiently and speedily. British Rail, however, never managed it, especially in the face of increased demand as people became accustomed to using the telephone for everything from booking soccer tickets to ordering groceries. Here was a good opportunity for the government to show a concrete benefit of privatisation. But of course they have blown it again out of parsimony. Complaints about the new number have already flooded my desk.

The system grew up in a haphazard way and was never properly sorted out by BR. Providing train information is expensive and unrewarding because there is no immediate financial transaction. In the (very) old days, it used to be possible to telephone your local station and an underworked clerk would happily take you through the nooks and crannies of the rail network. Then the service was consolidated at main stations or centralised bureaux.

In London, there were four numbers to dial, depending on your destination. It was confusing for tourists and others who did not know the difference between the East Coast and West Coast mainlines (which in any case are stupid names for lines that both go through central England nowhere near the coasts until they reach the North).

Even when you did get through, the information was often inaccurate, as borne out by surveys by the rail users group, which showed that all but two or three of 45 inquirers were wrongly informed about engineering works.

Then came privatisation, which brought in its wake a fundamental problem. Traditionally, the information has come from the parts of British Rail providing the services, which lately were InterCity, Regional Railways and Network SouthEast. With privatisation, these three were split into 25 train operators and some of these compete with one another.

The Rail Regulator, John Swift, had to devise a system which ensured that all information provided was impartial, and did not favour one operator against another. This is not easy. For example, if you are going from London to Birmingham, most trains go from Euston run by InterCity West Coast, but the cheapest services, run by Chiltern, go from Marylebone but take half an hour longer. So, in theory, the operator is supposed to tell every caller asking about cheap trains about the Marylebone services, which will take ages and lead to even more delays in getting through. It's like expecting BA to tell callers that actually British Midland is cheaper and its schedules more convenient. Which? magazine has twice highlighted this issue and found that virtually no one provides "impartial" information. It is not that Mr Swift is wrong, it is that the whole notion of splitting up BR into competing operators is flawed.

Moreover, there is the problem of "local" information. In the past, you phoned the local bureau, but now the 45 bureaux around the country will be linked through the 0345 number. While the new system initially directs calls to the local centre, once there is an overflow, which seems to be most of the time, the call can be routed anywhere in the country.

Operators, many of whom are in the biggest centre, at Newcastle, will have no idea of the local services in your area. It is a lot to expect of clerks in Havant (another big centre) to know anything about regional train services in Fife. They will not be helped by the fact that the information for different services is not on a single computer programme but several. And information about delays and engineering problems will have to be sent out by each of the 25 train operators to each of the 45 bureaux.

Moreover, as some of the complainants to me have already pointed out, you can't buy a ticket off the 0345 number. Instead, you then go to the local train operator. It's as if you rang a theatre to buy a ticket but they couldn't tell you the time of the performance. As for details of complicated journeys, forget it. One correspondent tried to get information about getting from Bristol to Boulogne via Folkestone and it took him an hour and a half and innumerable calls.

As ever, the new system is desperately under-resourced which is why so many calls go unanswered. Despite all these problems, it would have been possible to create a good national service. The Dutch do it, simply by making every transport provider - whether buses, trains, ferries or trams - contribute towards the national inquiry service which covers all forms of transport.

But here, the ideology got in the way. A well-funded national service, paid for by providers and possibly with a bit of taxpayers' dosh thrown in, is too redolent of socialist ideals to be introduced by a Tory government. I suspect that 0345 484950 will become a national joke.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?