Friday, 11 October 2013

Issue 14: Sorting the railways out

The day hadn’t started well. I can now see that informing the wife that the cat was dead, when in fact she was just sleeping heavily, ought to have been more closely investigated. With necessary apologies and consoling completed, a brisk stomp to Palmers Green train station was required and I arrived, at the top of rush hour, to discover that the First Capital Connect service to Moorgate had also seemingly expired. CANCELLED. A confused swarm quickly gathered by the ticket office wondering how on earth it was going to reach the office. Next train: 20 minutes – if it turns up. Annoyance is a familiar sensation on the Hertford North to central London stretch. There are so many trains cancelled that the word has practically burnt onto the destination screen.

This time, the excuse for the no-show was particularly irksome. You see, the same service hadn’t arrived the previous day either. We were told by the lone, overstretched employee at the station that when a driver is ill, or hungover, or has overslept, the service can’t run because there are no replacement staff. “So, can we expect this service to be cancelled tomorrow as well?” a vexed passenger enquired. “Well, probably,” the station employee admitted. Folk dissipated with mouths agape – and you can fully understand the raw disbelief. If a driver doesn’t turn up, tens of thousands suffer. Is there not a substitute crew to call on? This is surely the poorest service on the entire railway network. Nowadays, the hardest part of our working day is getting to and from work.

I’ve just finished Matthew Engel’s Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey To The Soul Of Britain (2009), a fascinating alternative history of British rail travel from the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830 onwards. Engel reveals that rail travel has always been a wretched affair, but his findings on John Major’s rail privatisation in the Nineties makes particularly uncomfortable reading. The taxpayer now stumps up five times as much in rail subsidy – £4.8bn – as it did in the latter days of British Rail. Pre-privatisation, if BR revealed it was having problems, it would be told to go away and come up with its own solution. But when the Conservatives pulled the rug from under BR, the new train-operating and infrastructure companies couldn’t be allowed to fail. That’s why so much of our cash is ploughed into railways.

“But where has all the money gone?” asks Engel. “‘Wages and salaries,' according to John Welsby, British Rail’s former chief executive. ‘Increasing infrastructure costs,” according to Matthew Elson and Stephen Fiddler in a paper prepared for Tony Blair in 2003. ‘£800m a year in dividends to investors,’ according to the Labour MP Jon Cruddas. And they all appear to be at least partially right.”

Surely by nationalising the railway, there’d be an instant saving of almost a billion pounds! Imagine what you could do with that! King’s Cross station has been completely transformed over ten years at a cost of £600m. It’s now a paean to modern rail termini (and more classy than St Pancras across the road). In effect, we’re now paying our fares twice. Train-operating companies (TOCs) will gladly accept handouts to ensure their survival and to sate the voracious appetite of the shareholders, but then they announce they’re raising ticket prices way over the rate of inflation. For me, the biggest kick in the plums comes on the morning of 1 January, when the fares have just jumped up. On New Year’s Day, I usually have to catch the first train out of Palmers Green to see my kids in south London and if it’s not cancelled, it’s laughably late – the first train of the year! Why late? It has to be driver laziness, rolling around in bed on £60,000 a year with a rollicking Scotch headache! It nicely sets the stall for the coming months.

Like most writers, I struggle to make ends meet. The magazine industry’s pay structure stagnated round about the time that Massive Attack released Protection. The day rate for a freelance sub-editor is the same in 2013 as it was almost 20 years ago, and this has an obvious knock-on effect on lifestyle. I now dread the annual price hike of rail fares because I know I’ll have to adjust the amount of lolly I spend on groceries, kids’ clothes and, of course, wine. I’ll be teetotal by 2015! TOCs don’t understand the danger they’re putting themselves in. If they push punters too hard, we’ll rear up and bite. The moment will arrive when people can’t afford to get to work. They’ll either hurdle the barriers en masse or be forced to give up their jobs.

As it stands, being on the dole is starting to look like an attractive career path. We’ve got four kids between us and live in a two-bedroom flat – and before you mither, “You shouldn’t have had so many nippers,” they’re the result of previously failed relationships, so think on before you open that big gob of yours! If me and the wife jacked in our jobs, we’d be eligible for a five-bedroom house in six months. With UK magazine publishers deeming an annual pay rise too kind a gesture, so the prospect of us ever owning a house dwindles. We’re becoming gradually poorer. Now, if everyone reaches the point where they can no longer afford the travel costs, there’ll be a financial backlash more severe than the banking crisis of 2007. The wheels of industry will grind to a halt. Either that, or passengers will mob up and force entry onto train services.

“Tickets please.”
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that now.”

Although Palmers Green has a timetabled weekend service, you’re lucky if you see a train on Sundays. The excuse is usually engineering work, but as I’ve been living in Palmers Green for over three years, you have to wonder if the improvements will ever be complete. All that engineering works is bollocks, anyway. It’s cheaper to have a small crew of orange-vested navvies changing some track in the Enfield area than running a proper rail service. Hiring a few knackered buses from a private operator in Potters Bar for an entire day is probably cheaper than running one half-sized train on a single service.  We’re not simple!

Surely it would make more sense to shut the entire line for five years, upgrade the whole stretch, then have a proper, seven-day service running from that point on. They manage it in Switzerland and Japan. They’ll hand you a sword in Tokyo if you don’t keep the trains running. It’s a matter of honour. I drive everywhere on Sunday now – it’s the only way you can get around London. And the state of First Capital Connect’s trains! Do you know how old they are? My stepfather, Keith, made the bloody things at York Works in 1976 between playing cards and sticking his favourite screwdrivers into sandwich-stealing rats. I’ll be glad when First Capital Connect loses its franchise. You feel that it’s just waiting for the inevitable to happen.

I travel across London more than most. My kids live at the opposite end of town, so I get to see the inadequacies of the rail system in all its glory. When it works, it’s great: one hour and ten minutes door to door. Sunday? Usually two hours. The car was in the garage last weekend so I had no choice but to use the railway. On Sunday, FCC decided it was going to run a train once an hour – not the two on the timetable – but at least it was operating full-sized stock, ie six coaches. The dirty trick that TOCs play at the weekend is to half the size of trains, so you’ve got all these families trying to get out and see some of the city they live in, and all these tourists who’ve travelled thousands of miles to buy an ice cream on the South Bank, and all these weekend revellers and all these sports supporters, and all these dads travelling to see their kids, and they’re packed onto three- or four-car services. There are just as many people travelling at the weekend as in the week. You shouldn’t have to stand at 7am on a Sunday, just so a train company can save a bob or two – money we’ve given them! If you raise fares by a ludicrous amount every year, then run full-sized trains at the weekend!

I make a huge effort to see my kids. I take them to school three mornings a week, give them a bath on Wednesday night and spend all day Sunday with them. Modern dads seem more compelled to be with their nippers than they were in the past. I have to set the alarm for 5.50am most mornings – and I can tell you that’s no easy gig. I’ve worked out that the average distance travelled on my overpriced £43.80 weekly Travelcard is 190 miles, or roughly 850 miles a months. I’ve turned into the Egon Ronay of cross-city travel, sampling the wares of First Capital Connect, London Underground and South West Trains on a massive scale.

What I’ve noticed is, if one line goes down due to a signal failure or the wrong type of electricity in overhead cables, the other lines are quick to collapse. I think there’s a linked-up rail-operator intranet, so when one line changes to red, indicating a problem, the other operators halt their own services to save cash. I have this vision of all these control rooms filled with overweight, sweaty men, mugs of tea and half-eaten doughnuts everywhere, and these rail-system fatties are bent double, laughing like bronchial hyenas, slapping tables and whooping with joy as they conjure inconvenience at the flick of a switch.

In the Seventies and Eighties, my stepfather worked for BREL, screwing trains together – the same ones I travel in today. This meant I was eligible for a “priv” card, which amounted to 32 days of free rail travel a year, and a third off all fares. To a teenager, this was absolute freedom. I used mine to the max. You had to mark off the date in a box but if you used an erasable Paper Mate Replay, you effectively had unlimited rail travel from Thurso to Penzance whenever you needed it. Doncaster train station wasn’t far from our house; after school, sometimes me and my brother would tell Mam we were off out, get a train to Edinburgh, grab a bite to eat at Waverley station, then head back to South Yorkshire and be in bed by 10.30pm.

In a two-year period from 1986, we were basically on a nationwide tour. We had more than a passing interest in the railways by this point. On Saturdays, we’d travel as far as we possibly could in a day, visiting Southampton, Swansea and Chester, and we occasionally travelled overnight, sleeping on train-carriage floors, so we could be in Scotland for an early start. We’d visit Dundee, Perth and Glasgow just to see what these far-flung places were like. We palled up with a 26-year-old dole-ite in Doncaster called Gary. He was a big Beatles and Madonna fan – not gay, although women didn’t just give Gary a wide berth, they gave him no berth at all. He liked James Bond films and got me into Clint Eastwood. He was 6’2” and acted as our protector and valet.

I recall, fondly, when some idle teens thought I’d be an easy picking one afternoon in Leicester. I was waiting by a wall, eating a 30p bag of chips, when these bean-headed would-be brawlers approached. Gary had nipped into a shop to buy 35mm film – he liked photography. He wasn’t a paedo, or anything like that. The chips were whacked out of my hands and I took a punch round the chops. I was probably wearing glasses at the time too – as I say, an easy target. Gary stepped out of the shop, Jessops no doubt, dropped his bag and laid into the lot of them like a dog on a ratting expedition. It was a fantastic spectacle to see these so-called hard nuts s***ing it, screaming, scattering in all directions and panicking like jessies. It was probably Kasabian.

The cat remains alive, but at 14, she’s gone deaf and as a result has started meowing too loudly, especially in the night. She also forgets that you’ve put food in her bowl and sits by your feet going, “MEOWWW! MEOWWW! MEOWWW!”, like a confused old lady. Gary’s nana lost her marbles in her late 70s. She used to leave sandwiches out for newsreaders by the telly and was startled upon seeing a clip of Jurassic Park, thinking it was a documentary rather than a far-fetched yarn. I told her: “Why bring back dinosaurs now – people must be mental!” She said, “Oh Goooood.” I suppose we’ve all got that to look forward – the slide.

It took me two hours to get home last night. The Victoria Line was running with delays – two hours to travel 8.3 miles. You can reach York from King’s Cross in that time. I often wonder what the country would be like if I seized power and became a slightly left-of-centre despot. The likes of Alexa Chung, James Corden and that blaze victim Claudia Winkleman would be disappeared – and if you ask no questions, I’ll tell you no lies. The railway would be nationalised at a stroke and an immediate investigation launched to find out how much money was paid to shareholders. I’d recoup the lot, then set about making a railway we could all be proud of. Won’t you help me?

Kasabian have no future gig commitments planned. But when they have, ask them about the Jessops incident. Serge Pizzorno doesn't look too belting in the G-Star Raw window on Oxford Street at the moment.

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