Rail gets its lines crossed

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

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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.

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