Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you
“Please only travel by train if necessary,” rail passengers were told again on Saturday. It was day three of the strike by members of the RMT union in a dispute over pay, jobs and working practices.
The rail union must be absolutely delighted: even though the train operators are running a reliable, competent service on about half of the British network, prospective passengers are being urged to stay at home or drive instead, with a dire warning of severe disruption for anyone who ventures out on the rails.
This month’s strikes are very different from the last great summer shutdown, in 1989, because that stoppage really did close the rail network.
For people living in vast swathes of the UK, including Cornwall, Dorset, almost all of Wales and much of Scotland, there is no tangible difference. But on the lines that see the most travellers, a perfectly decent service was operating between 7.30pm and 6.30pm.
At Birmingham New Street, trains came and went on links to London Euston, Manchester, Derby, Sheffield, Leeds, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh.
From London Paddington, GWR was running frequent services to Reading, Swindon, Cardiff, Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth, with special departures on the “Glastonbury Express” to Castle Cary in Somerset, the nearest railway station to the festival site. The journey took as little as 98 minutes, with a lowest off-peak fare of £40.30 one way.
Mark Hopwood, managing director of GWR, believes in treating passengers like grown-ups. At a busy Paddington station on the first day of the strike, he told me: “Where we are running trains, we are very happy for people to come and travel, but we really don’t want to have people stranded.
“Just check your times for your journey out – and your journey back.”
His counterpart at state-run LNER, David Horne, tweeted on Saturday morning about London-bound trains from Yorkshire, Newcastle and Edinburgh: “Good to see plenty of customers travelling already this morning, heading to concerts and other events.
“Plenty of customers heading to see Ed Sheeran at Wembley and the Rolling Stones at Hyde Park tonight.”
Rival Lumo, the “open access” operator between London King’s Cross, Newcastle and Edinburgh, even added an extra round trip on Saturday, with tickets for immediate departure available for £39.90 one way – and railcard discounts applied as usual.
Britain’s leading airports were connected with the cities they serve by frequent trains until the end of services. All London Heathrow airport terminals were linked from London Paddington.
Gatwick had frequent connections with London Bridge and Victoria in the capital, as well as to and from Brighton.
On the Stansted Express, an hourly service operated to and from London Liverpool Street, calling at Bishop’s Stortford, Harlow Town and Tottenham Hale for the London Underground.
Luton Airport Parkway was served by four trains an hour from London St Pancras International, with bus connections to the airport taking a further five minutes. Direct trains from the airport station also served St Albans, Harpenden, Bedford, Wellingborough, Kettering and Corby.
To and from Manchester airport, there were regular services from Manchester, Liverpool and Preston, as well as from towns such as Wilmslow and Newton-le-Willows.
Other British airports with good rail connections despite the strike included Birmingham, Southampton and Newcastle, served by the Tyne and Wear Metro.
Yet the rail industry insists: “Only travel by rail if necessary.”
Shock news: while my travel plans are my business, we passengers tend not to make unnecessary journeys. Why on earth the rail industry would want to feed the myth that the nation shuts down when a rail strike happens is beyond me: it all adds to a pervading sense of unreliability.
If, heaven forbid, there are further strikes, I hope the train operators will use the following for public messaging: “We recognise that tens of thousands of rail workers want and deserve a better deal. We hope we can reach a settlement soon. Meanwhile, we are running trains where they are most in demand.
“If you can make your journey by rail, you really should – for safety, for the environment and for a more relaxed journey.”
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