Tuesday 15 March 2022

The utter misery of UK train travel

Choo-choo to all places

I used to consider train travel great fun, the pleasure of watching the English countryside from Brighton to Manchester over a 6-hour journey, even Manchester to Edinburgh, London to Glasgow, or Manchester to Torquay gave you a view of this amazing land. Yet, there are even more spectacular views by train on the British Isles.

In July 1999, I embarked on a train journey named the Imperial Tour from London Liverpool Street to Budapest and back. I was to complete the journey in 2 months stopping over wherever I wanted for as long as I needed to, it was first class for £483 and I plied my route through Amsterdam, Hannover, Berlin, Dresden, Bratislava, Prague to Budapest, my return leg through Vienna, Salzburg, Zurich, Basel, Brussels, and London. I would say, the Bratislava – Budapest leg and the Vienna – Zurich leg gave me the most spectacular views.

Ten years later at Easter, I was meeting up with my best friend in Geneva and I took the train from Amsterdam, the view from the window through places that you would neither see from the air nor from the road just gives you a different appreciation of the beauty, the culture, the nature, and the architecture of different places. That I vicariously watch train journey programmes to far-flung places is one of fascination and curiosity.

A travesty and atrocity

Yet, train travel in the UK has been anything but pleasurable, if the service is not sclerotic and substandard, it is the exorbitant cost of travel that puts you totally off, except that there are no good alternatives. Living in Manchester, for years, I enjoyed the Virgin Trains West Coast Main Line franchise, it was generally affordable, and the service was dependable, they ran the service from 1997 to December 2019.

Now that the franchise has fallen into the hands of Avanti West Coast, it has been misery piled on misery, what was once affordable is now outrageously expensive that you’ll guffaw at some eye-watering prices to travel on trains gilded with incompetence and lethargy. If you forked out over £300 for a Manchester – London Euston train journey and I never paid that much for a peak time return journey with Virgin Trains in first-class, beware because the train manager can unilaterally declassify the train and you are a mug even if you can claim compensation.

No words can describe

On my return from London on Sunday, it was prescient to consider an earlier journey back, though, on arrival at London Euston, I should have been presented with a timetable of trains departing every 20 minutes, but there wasn’t one for an hour and the one after it was already cancelled.

I boarded the train and took one of the Premium Economy seats, thinking I would be charged the extortionate £25 upgrade, but something said, the train would probably be a coal wagon, heaped high and trundled up the train line at speeds that would make walking seem a sprint.

Well, I was right, apparently the two scheduled trains before the one I boarded and the one after it was cancelled leaving the train carrying potentially all the passengers for 4 trains going a route that took 3h41 as opposed to the typical route we enjoyed with Virgin Trains that lasted just 2h10. Everyone having paid handsomely for this travesty of impunity, for this is not the first time that Avanti West Coast has merged trains.

It gets worse

All the aisles had standing passengers that the train manager had to implore some to get off and wait for another train that no one could with any certainty say would run. I endured, with my mask on to the end, only to find passengers in Manchester rushing to get on, why? A train had been cancelled and this was running late.

How Avanti West Coast got this franchise, I cannot tell, but the experience has been anything but pleasant or remotely good, it has been so deplorable that the only salvation would be to return to horse-drawn carriages. At least you can feed the horse carrots and hear it neigh all the way. They say it would be over 2026 come then, or come Lord Jesus.

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