Tuesday, 19 February 2008

The strain of the train

I had a rather annoying experience the other day, when I caught the 09.00 National Express train from King’s Cross to Newcastle. It departed and arrived on time; I had a secluded, reserved seat where I could write in peace, except during the frequent ministrations of the attentive trolley service; there was a well-advertised restaurant car if I had wanted one; and the lavatories were spotless. All of which militated against my plan to spend the journey composing a searing indictment of my uniformly awful experiences on the East Coast Main Line since the sad demise of GNER.

On reflection, though, a customer dissatisfaction rate of 75% probably deserves an airing. Why should three of my recent journeys between the North East and London have proved memorable for all the wrong reasons?

I tried to embark on my first trip with a genuinely open mind, banishing the prejudice created by the rather sad and shoddy look of the train since it was stripped of its GNER insignia. However, no-one could dispute that travelling on the 09.00 from Newcastle was distinctly marred by the unexplained absence of reservation tickets. This guaranteed a round of heated argy-bargy after each of the numerous calling points. Worse still, there appeared to be evidence of overbooking; two angry people brandished pieces of paper at me, demonstrating that we had all reserved precisely the same seat.

On the return journey on a Friday evening, the overflowing lavatories recalled the darkest days of British Rail. More disturbingly, numerous people to whom I have mentioned this distasteful fact have nodded eagerly in recognition, suggesting that it is becoming quite typical. Still, at least action had been taken to reduce demand for the loos by making it hellishly difficult to obtain refreshments. The team providing the trolley service seemed to be training hard for the 2012 Olympics, achieving something like warp speed as they hurtled through the carriage, carefully avoiding all eye contact.

Worst of all was the loud mantra on the tannoy: “Attention train crew, disabled passenger alarm operated”. This played constantly for the last quarter of the journey, while the train crew huddled together in the restaurant car, manfully ignoring it.

For my next journey from Newcastle, National Express actually cancelled my train (a vanishingly rare event, in my experience, under GNER). The crowded alternative service onto which I crammed myself arrived in London more than an hour late owing to “animals on the line in the Morpeth area” (a splendidly nineteenth century excuse) and “a failed train in the Bawtry area”, though we had to hang around in York for some considerable time before anyone came up with that explanation.

Have I been incredibly unlucky, or are standards on the slide? I’ve been talking to as many regular travellers as a recluse can manage, and found only one person who professed himself happy with the new regime (and even he agreed about the toilets). As well as declining service levels, I’ve encountered recurrent complaints that it has become impossible to obtain discounted fares, particularly for weekend travel. I haven’t experienced that myself, but it makes sense given that National Express have committed themselves to paying even more for their franchise than the daunting sum which led GNER to chuck in the towel. The only obvious ways to achieve this are by raising fares, increasing train utilisation and cutting staff.

One formidable North East businesswoman put it to me like this: “I used to really look forward to catching the train home after a day’s work in London, and having a decent meal in the restaurant car. Now it’s just three hours (if you’re lucky) of total misery. But it’s the same trains and the same staff, so how on earth have they done it?”

I’d certainly love to know. Perhaps someone in charge would care to tell us?


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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