July 09, 2009

A British Railway Rant

Privatised railways. Oh what fun.
In the last 4 weeks I have travelled on so many different trains I have lost count, but I have been keeping track (hah!) of the different companies, compiling a sort of league table. So for anyone contemplating a train-based holiday in the UK, it might be worth finding out a little more about the actual carrier, and not just the timetable.
Speaking of which, there are two excellent features of British train travel (think of this section as the Good news).
The "Train Tracker" Service provides detailed alternative itineraries for any journey you care to dream up, and works both online and by phone, where a very friendly and competent automaton listens attentively as you ask questions. He is very polite too, apologetically asking you to speak more slowly or more clearly if he fails to understand. You get the impression he really feels bad about having to ask.
The other good thing is the system whereby passengers can claim compensation for costs incurred by late trains. This extends to such things as missed flights, forfeited events tickets etc. Of course the umpteen page application form is designed to thwart frivolous requests, but at least it does make the companies take punctuality seriously.

Now the Bad news. The "system" is a mess. The standards of service vary so dramatically between different companies that they might as well be in different countries. You can step from a clean train with food service, helpful staff, and essential information about forthcoming stops, and then board an overcrowded filthy one with blocked toilets, no service (even on journeys of several hours), and a complete absence of information. How on earth is a tourist supposed to know where they are, or if the next station is the one they need?
There are no maps, no timetables, no announcements, and no visible staff. It's a matter of turning to fellow passengers with the irritating childhood question "Are we there yet?".
Complaints from the many people perched on their cases in the entry ways and corridors that they have paid £50 ($120) or more for a seat are met with the tired response that they have only paid to be transported from A to B. The cost does not include actually sitting down!
So, which are the best and worst?
Out of 10 different companies I used, some of them several times, there were 2 consistently better than the rest, and two who were undeniably the worst.

The irony is that the clear winner (in terms of comfort, on-board service, cleanliness and punctuality) is losing its franchise because of ongoing debts.
  1. National Express has the London-Edinburgh route, plus some others on the east coast, but they are behind with their (huge) payments to the government, so it seems I was very lucky to experience their wonderful service.
  2. In second place, and hopefully a bit better managed, is Virgin Trains. Clean, fast, comfortable and reliable, they came second only because they didn't have quite the level of onboard service offered by First National. But that probably means their figures balance better.
  3. ...
  4. ...
  5. ...
  6. (I won't bore you with these, ...
  7. ... and to be honest, I wasn't ever bored enough to complete the whole table.)
  8. ...
  9. The second last place goes to Scot Rail, on which I travelled for many hours without any means of getting so much as a drink of water. There were staff on board, but they sat reading and chatting among themselves, and requests for refreshments were answered with the unarguable "We don't do that". The route was spectacular, and the train relatively clean (with no refreshments available, rubbish was hardly a problem!), which placed them well above the dismal Arriva, but their complete lack of regard for their customers is hard to justify when all rail services are struggling to attract customers.
  10. Right at the bottom of this league table is Arriva Trains Wales, which seriously disappointed or inconvenienced me on every single one of the 6 trips I did. The blocked toilets and irresponsible overcrowding mentioned above were on Arriva trains, as were the absence of refreshments, information, and basic cleanliness such as emptying overflowing rubbish bins. They fell even further behind with a fatuous and patently insincere announcement "regretting" the late arrival of a train which was one minute late, and "apologising" for any inconvenience to passengers. This might have sounded a lot more sincere if the previous day they hadn't unexpectedly announced that the train would not be continuing on the scheduled route. We were told to collect our belongings and hurry (lugging our bags up and down two flights of steps) to a different train ... which then sat there for a further 30 minutes before finally leaving. There was absolutely no apology or explanation for this far more irritating delay and the considerable inconvenience it involved.

I love train travel, and I will use it on future UK trips, but the service will definitely need to improve before people consider this as an attractive alternative to using their car.


Paul van Gool said...

You better not come to The Netherlands. Except for a few long distance trains there are no refreshments sold on the trains, but you can buy them on every station. And about the toilets. For the short distances new trains are being deployed without any toilets at all.

Unknown said...

Helpful travel tip, thanks!
But I can't resist a "sizeist" remark about how train trips in the Netherlands could surely never be considered "long distance". ;-D


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