When I crashed my car back in early December whilst driving along a country lane I remember quite clearly what went through my head when I stepped out of the only door which still opened to survey the wreckage and wonder at the miracle of German engineering; “Oh God I am going to have to start getting the train again.” Since passing my test on my fourth attempt I have done everything within my power to never have to darken the door of public transport again. Rather than getting on the last bus home or taking the train down to London or up North to Manchester I chose the comfort, safety and reliability of my car every time. Whether I had to put up with roadworks, boy racers who lack the skill to keep up with a lady racer or BMW drivers who insist on riding up your behind no matter what, I always took comfort in the fact that at least I was not having to ride the trains.
There was once a time when I enjoyed boarding the train. It was about eight years ago when midland mainline in their wisdom put on a service which rode its passengers directly from Leicester straight through to Manchester. As I was due to start at the University of Manchester come September I was delighted and even made use of it a few times to check out my new city-to-be. At the time they still offered free cups of tea and coffee and even the odd entertaining magazine all for a fairly reasonable price of £18 so long as you remembered your railcard. Unfortunately the tea and coffee was cut, some wise guy accountant decided this was actually the cause of a 0.001% reduction in profits and knowing that the poor commuters would have little choice other than to pay the price or get up earlier in order to make up a flask of the good stuff they pushed through the skinflint measure knowing they could charge us with little fear of a French style rebellion. Midland Mainline kept the service going until about two months after I began my course when they decided there just wasn’t the demand. It was just enough time for me to get used to the joy of being only two hours from my home town of Market Harborough and for the rest of my time there I was forced to crowd on to the train services to Sheffield like a low breed cattle into carriages so over-packed I came close to fainting for want of air on more than one occasion.
I have been in long distance relationships for most of my adult years and ever since this service came to an end in 2003 I have loathed getting the train. If it wasn’t problems with overcrowding or overcharging there would be an issue with engineering works which were always conducted during the weekend when they would put on buses but never think to lower the fares to compensate those of us crushed into coaches which should have been decommissioned back when the railways were built.
It was because of these horrendous experiences with the rail network that I spent thousands of pounds on driving lessons and tests. As the daughter of a man who owned a car dealership it was a bit of a joke that I reached the age of 24 before I was able to get behind the wheel, but once I was there I never wanted to leave.
When my father told me it would be possibly weeks if not months before I would get my car back or even before he would let me drive it I cried, a lot. In spite of my crocodile tears and diva like protests that trains are more dangerous than cars due to the quantity of drunks and suicide bombers even he would not budge. He thinks I crashed because I was going too fast and has decided ice was not at issue. Apparently it has something to do with physics and the speed one has to be going at to roll a car three times and spin it, but its all Greek to me and as far as I knew I took the corner at a cruise worthy speed and if it hadn’t been for the frost this article would not be being written. But it is and I am sitting here on a train to Manchester having spent nearly five hundred pounds on train travel in the last two months and seeing as I have had to board nearly every rail service provider in Britain I feel I am well equipped to report on my findings of the state of the rail network as it stands today.
When I started getting the train again I decided I was in a unique position to really take a good look at how rail has changed in the 18 months since I was last a regular weekend commuter. The first journey admittedly was delightful. For the first time in months I had three lovely hours all to myself. I kept coming across magazines and newspapers and for once I was able to read more than just the headlines and the starting paragraph; fine if it’s The Express not fine if it’s The Guardian or The Independent, they usually spend the first paragraph telling you about the atmospheric weather and scenery surrounding stories of supposedly hard news and it is not usually till you reach the fourth paragraph that you find out you are reading about an especially intelligent canine who is the first ever recorded smiling dog. I was even able to indulge myself on the Virgin trains in a very small bottle of red wine which was delightful and I got squiffy enough to strike up a conversation with some poor soul from The Times who let slip about a certain head of states lawyer giving him a tinkle to tell him he’d better not publish or damned indeed he would be.
The problem came when I wanted to return home on a Sunday, it was complete and utter pandemonium. Every time I have tried to travel back on a Sunday I have been faced with late trains, cancelled services, crotchety train staff and a constant stream of misinformation. One particularly memorable journey occurred on January 14th. I had an appointment with a consultant in Leicester the next day which I had been waiting for since September so I had no choice but to navigate my way through the tussle of trains and buses to get back in time. I had been avoiding Sunday services because I couldn’t bear to get on the coaches or que outside Piccadilly Station for a place on a bus that may not ever come free. As it was I had somehow managed to find a service which would get me home for a fairly reasonable time and after playing a particularly ferocious game of scrabble; where thimbles of Krupnik had rendered the normal rules of play redundant; I set off to the station with my partner to get a train which required as far as we knew no buses.
After waiting at Mauldeth Road to the point where it became clear the train was not coming; not you understand because there was an announcement, but because everyone there concluded that fifteen minutes after it was due to depart there really was little chance it was going to get there in time for us to make our connections; we all ran from the platform in search of a taxi to hot-foot us to Piccadilly. Unfortunately the roads were packed and though the people I managed to herd into my taxi made their connection I was left stranded at Piccadilly with no way of getting home. When I got to Manchester station I was all in a flutter and on the verge of tears but hopeful I would find some explanation for my abandonment in the cold. I spoke with the man at the information desk only to be treated like a partially sighted toddler who informed me in the most patronising tone imaginable that there had been signs up in Piccadilly for months about service changes, “but I wasn’t at Piccadilly I was at Mauldeth Road.” I spurted agitatedly. He rolled his eyes and suggested I find another means of transport.
Northern Rail finally found a way for me to get home but it was all very touch and go and was dependent on those at Derby station taking me into their care and paying for a taxi to get me home. They did, but only as far as Leicester station in a taxi with the most racist person I have ever encountered. An Asian girl who had been smoking with her boyfriend at the station who felt the need to lecture me about the dreadful Polish people who are apparently stealing all our jobs. “And where in England were you born?” I politely enquire of her. “China,” she answered; but I live here now, I work for gas company”. I turn my head to look out the window and chew my lip to stop myself replying thinking of my car and the joy of driving with only myself for company and whichever DJ I choose to accompany me on the miles.
Other than delays over these two months I have encountered rude staff, cutbacks on the use of debit cards to pay for snacks on Virgin and Midland Mainline and constant overcrowding. If there is ever a rude passenger who is causing discomfort he or she will generally be ignored by the train managers who somehow lack the courage to confront drunken louts and noise polluting pubescent teens. I come across staff at a Midland Mainline buffet car who are happy to tell me that they get paid handsomely helped in part by the cut backs of the free coffee and tea which I once loved so much.
There has to be something done about the state of the rail-network. Until the government intervenes to stop these constant hikes in prices without improvements to delays, overcrowding and general service there is no way anyone would ever choose to board a train when they can drive to the majority of destinations for a third of the price charged by the service providers. It is unclear what we as a collective can do but as individuals the time has come for us to bombard our MP with complaints and whatever you do if you find yourselves left waiting without explanation in the cold or abandoned at the platform when you get to your destination make sure that the first thing you do is ask for a complaints form, fill it in and send it off.