I used to travel on public transport a lot: to school and to various jobs. I remember the ‘good old days’ when I would let two Piccadilly Line trains go past at Holborn just so that I could ‘stand’ in relative comfort on the commute home.
As a teenager, I remember getting on a British Rail train and asking the guard if it was going to Woking as there had been no platform announcement or indication and nothing on the front of the train to say where it was heading. “Where else can it go?” replied the helpful guard. I didn’t know. I had never travelled that line before, hence my question.
Travel by British Rail could be particularly bad. On a business trip to Staffordshire in the 1980s, my colleague and I got on at Euston to find our reserved seats in a carriage with no heating or light. “Sit in another carriage,” suggested another helpful guard without any hint of an apology.
Then there was the litter. Trains were filthy in those days. I remember getting on trains where cans rolled around on the floor leaking their sticky contents all over the place, while the seats stank of takeaway food.
Then there was a memorable journey from Paddington to Slough. The diesel multiple unit was in such poor condition that it kept stalling. As far as I could tell, the driver would release the brake so the train could roll forward and then jump start the engine.
Why do I recall all this?
Because my experience of travelling by rail over the past few years has been so much better. I don’t travel every day or week, but what I see does impress me.
Last week, I made a return trip from Wokingham to Waterloo. Wokingham station is currently being rebuilt and its new station building, replacing the existing ‘prefab’ structure, looks very impressive. The new covered footbridge with lifts is far superior to the old one, while the car park is also being improved. It will be a much better facility when finished in a few months.
The old building is still in use and I went in to buy my ticket. As I queued at the ticket office, I saw two additional members of staff sitting at a table also selling tickets. They could not sell all types of ticket and one lady enquired about her journey. One of the staff explained that he could not issue that ticket type and that she would have to go to the main ticket office. He apologised for the inconvenience. An apology? Not something often heard in BR days.
I boarded the train, which unlike most of the bone-shakers of the past, gave a smooth ride. I liked the trains of my youth, but they did rattle and were years beyond being able to provide comfortable service.
Waterloo too feels like a modern terminus. For years it was grubby and dingy, but now it is an easy station to use.
When I got the train home, a member of staff was going through with a bag collecting litter. Yes, collecting litter. The trains do start out clean, even if the public make a mess of them.
That’s just one journey, but earlier in the year I travelled from Tiverton to Paddington on a day when the lines had flooded and the network was disrupted. True to all transport providers, there was confusion. However, the staff on Virgin and First Great Western were very helpful and apologetic. They passed on information as they got it and dispensed free hot drinks and biscuits. It took me back to my experience at Euston 25 years ago when I was told to sit in another carriage.
So do I think our public transport is perfect? Not at all.
What I do think is that a lot of progress has been made. I find staff to be generally polite and helpful. I look back and feel sorry for BR staff in the past, because I think they were neglected. I don’t think the management supported them and the public didn’t think much of them either. They had a tough job.
For decades UK railways have been the poor relations of roads, which have been promoted by one government after another. I think most governments would have been quite happy not to have had the bother of railways so they could get on and build more roads.
I do think some aspects of privatising the railways have been successful, although the funding of railways with government subsidies, the fares regime, connecting services and the structure of the industry all need reform. Ultimately, what is important is to have a network that functions well and a service that delivers what travellers need. I am inclined to travel more by rail and would do far more if it were more affordable.
I realise my experience is limited to Southwest Trains, First Great Western, Virgin and Transport for London in the south of England and that I no longer ‘enjoy’ an over-crowded daily commute or the chaos of signalling failures and other disruption. Does service vary in different parts of the UK? What’s your experience and what do you think?