Thursday, 11 November 2010

Southeastern rant

Back in the Thatcher era somebody had the bright idea of privatising the rail services. The move was made probably with the strange mixture of free market ideology and a remembrance of childhood train sets and their colourful liveries. Though some things are not to be regretted (the Britrail pizza for instance) the shift to private companies has not delivered benefits to anyone much. After the Potters Bar disaster of 2002, Network Rail had to rescue maintenance from private outsourcing. Whoever had been responsible simply didn’t want to spend money with no obvious and immediate return. As for the rail companies themselves, the promised benefits of ‘competition’ were never realised. Since each company operates in a different region it’s hard to see how competition is supposed to work. When an announcement on my train says ‘thank you for travelling with Southeastern’, I wonder what other choice I might have had. Railway fares, already grossly exorbitant, are expected to rise again sharply very soon. My town, Faversham, now has a ‘fast’ service costing some 30 to 50 percent more than the ‘slow train’. It’s convenient for me to get to St Pancras rather than Victoria station but in fact the service is at most only ten minutes faster than the old one. To ensure that there appears to be a difference the ‘slow’ train has been made a little slower through the addition of a couple of stops. The ‘fast’ train has no onboard food and drink service, unlike the ‘slow’ one. But even worse (and I say this as a writer) the fast train has constant announcements, making it virtually impossible to read or to concentrate on anything. How many times to we need to be welcomed aboard? Between Gravesend and Strood, a matter of six or seven minutes, this announcement will often be repeated as much as five or six times. We are told when we are about to arrive somewhere (possibly useful), when we have arrived (possibly not), and what the next stations are. We are informed not to leave our baggage on the train (thanks). Often enough the conductor (sorry, the ‘manager’) repeats the same things. The best announcement though (if ‘best’ is a word that applies here) is the one suggesting that we should ‘make use of the luggage racks to leave room for other passengers’. I imagine nervous besuited business types cramming themselves into the overhead spaces to free the seats below.

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