Let's put BR back on track and end legalised mugging
WATCHING the first episode of a BBC2 series on the history of Britain's railways, I was forced to conclude that things have come almost full circle.
Dan Snow, the presenter of Locomotion, lamented the lot of the early Victorians, who had to put up with fares costing as much as a labourer's weekly wage, as well as competing train companies causing such ticketing confusion that passengers were sometimes locked up for boarding a train with the wrong ticket.
Remind you of anything? Perhaps the cost of your last train journey, or perhaps the numerous examples of passenger harassment we read about in the newspapers, where heavy-handed train inspectors issue enormous penalty fares to rail users who were no more than innocent victims of a ticketing system so complex no-one understands it.
Everyone knows a ludicrous story about someone's recent nightmare train journey or ticket farce.
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I was talking to a friend who had to travel to London for a meeting. He paid £100 for a ticket valid for travel only after 9.30am. A colleague of his had paid £200 to travel earlier. But her train was so delayed it was still at the station at 9.40am, and the train my friend was due to catch was consequently late as well. My friend asked if it was OK if he got on the same train as his colleague, as his ticket should now be valid, and if he caught his intended train, he would arrive too late in London.
Don't be ridiculous! Of course it wasn't OK. It didn't matter that the 9.15 train was still there at 9.45, it was still the 9.15 train and rules were rules. It also didn't matter that his train was even later. He had to wait, and therefore arrived late in London, despite the fact there was room on the train he was refused permission to board.
Of course, if there hadn't been someone to ask, he might just have got on the train, in the mistaken assumption that a train leaving at 9.45 was a 9.45 train. If he had, he would have faced a penalty fare, probably another £200.
Which is what happened to two elderly and disabled passengers who boarded an earlier train than the one on their ticket, after one of them fell over and was in pain. Instead of a bit of understanding, the rail company issued them with a £239 penalty fare.
It was this kind of absurdity that led consumer champion Passenger Focus to accuse rail companies last year of acting like cowboy car clampers for threatening train travellers with huge fines and court action for simple mistakes or misunderstandings.
Remember the British Rail slogan "Let the train take the strain"? That seems a bit of joke now, as in many cases the train has become the strain.
Not only do you risk fines and prosecution if you make a mistake, you also have to be prepared to spend hours on the computer if you want to buy the cheapest ticket.
And who wouldn't want to get the cheapest ticket on trains which are now the most expensive in Europe?
It is often cheaper to chop a single journey up into several stages, but the only way to find out is to try out all the combinations you can think of – Exeter to Swansea could become Exeter to Bristol, Bristol to Cardiff, Cardiff to Swansea, and so on. Just asking for the cheapest ticket usually doesn't work.
It's hard to believe that many other European countries still have a simple pricing system for train tickets – you pay for the distance you travel and occasionally there is a supplement to take a high-speed train. It's that simple. Full stop.
Our trains have been privatised into a complex and malfunctioning mess, and rail companies have been allowed to turn into legalised muggers, raising prices as much as they can, treating passengers like dirt and devising a ticketing system so fiendishly convoluted you'd have to be Stephen Hawking to work it out it.
The railways were nationalised by a post-war Labour government, which also created the NHS and the rest of the welfare state, as well as nationalising coal, steel, gas, electricity, telephones and the Bank of England.
If one government can do that much in just five years after a world war, why can't any political party make a sound manifesto promise to bring back British Rail or something similar?