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Our rail service is an incredibly expensive joke – except it’s not funny

The posters evoke a 1950s Enid Blyton adventure – but my journey was anything but
The posters evoke a 1950s Enid Blyton adventure – but my journey was anything but - Alamy Stock Photo

The posters evoke a 1950s Enid Blyton adventure. All aboard for a Famous Five trip, rugs and picnics under the arms as we race to catch the train in our short trousers and tank tops. The ads, say GWR, highlight “the benefits of travelling by train, encouraging more people to make the switch from car to rail”.

And no one lauds that train takes the strain concept more than I do. I save on diesel, avoid motorway traffic, I can work, read, look out of the window and think. I can get to London, hop on my bike and not worry about parking and congestion zones.

But then reality bites. Crowds racing for the barrier crush, sprinting to find an unreserved seat. Then, hoorah, there’s a carriage filled with green vacant seat lights. But already there are arguments between strangers. “I think you’re sitting in my place.” “But there’s a green light which means it’s not reserved.”

Suddenly, shrieking, ear-piercingly loud voices blare from the speakers above (all the more horrid when you’ve had a good lunch). “We need to reset the train system.” A few minutes later and the green lights go off, then they come on again except that lots of them are now red. Consternation and chaos ensues.

Then the voice is back: I clock words like “apologies”, “train crew”, “late-running in-bound”.

This train hasn’t even left the station and we’re delayed. Which doesn’t exactly soften the blow of the jaw-dropping, outrageous pricing for this torture. A plain open return from Taunton to London is £297. Three hundred quid to get to London and back – or £1.50 a minute on a good day.

So you get crafty and do something called “SplitSave” where you identify your return journey and the price tumbles to £143.50. Then on your way back, you manage to hop on an earlier train except the SplitSave thing bites you on the bum because the train you caught doesn’t go via Pewsey and is a “Super Off-Peak” which means you have to buy an entirely new ticket for the whole journey (about £135), and you can’t just pay the difference because you used a different operator to buy your original ticket.

But still I book the train, week in, week out. Most times the delays are between 15 and 25 minutes. Last week, it was rather longer. We got stuck behind a broken-down freight train and look destined to spend the day at Newbury Racecourse, or rather on the train with the doors locked.

There was a rebellion in my carriage and after someone threatened to call the police they opened one door and a few of us piled out and caught a taxi to Reading. I was two hours late for my meeting… Imagine if it was a young person, who’d forked out £143 to get to London, only to miss a crucial job interview.

Yes, there’s the money back ‘Delay Repay’ mechanism, of course. Except it’s designed to make you lose the will to live and give up the effort.

I frequently take trains to Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh. But you try working, or making a call, or doing a Zoom between Taunton and Edinburgh. The Wi-Fi is hopeless, and the mobile signal keeps failing as you go from 5G, to no G, to 3G, which is no G…

The food is shameful (a trolley with nothing but over-processed carbs, except for Wolfy’s porridge, which is wonderful, but not ideal for lunch), and as they only take a card, if that card machine isn’t working (often) the trolley (“without hot water today, apologies”) is redundant.

Then there are the (usually filthy) loos. The taps (when they’re working – imagine the fun when you put soap gel on your hands and find there’s no water…) and tiny sinks designed, it seems, so the water spurts all over you and makes it look like you peed yourself.

The voice is back: apologising for “infrastructure issues”. You’re telling me. This Famous Five malarkey is in fact no adventure, it’s just a story of relentless frustration. Rely on those precise train times as advertised to fit into a tight schedule and you’ll find yourself aping those train staff (who I should add are invariably cheerful and charming); issuing apologies. Here comes Sitwell, the loser from Somerset: late again for a meeting.

It’s an incredibly expensive joke, except it’s not even funny. The price for this is an appalling global reputation, and is catastrophic for lives, business and productivity. We are indeed a nation stuck behind a broken-down freight train. And while the operators and government can’t get the existing railways to work effectively and efficiently or do a deal with the unions to stop the strikes, they’re lavishing money on a new fantasy rail line to enable the richest (note HS2 won’t dare publish prospective ticket prices) to get to Birmingham 20 minutes faster.

I once collared Nick Clegg at a gathering in London to have a go at him about the horrendous conspiracy of HS2. My specific beef was that the business case argued that the less time business people spent on trains the more productive they were. “Actually it’s the opposite,” I argued.

“If a journey is only half an hour people will just read the news. So actually the longer the journey the more productive they are.” He scoffed at this and accused me of “obfuscation”. I scuttled off to find a dictionary and now every time he comes on the telly I shout “OBFUSCATION!”

Meanwhile, brace yourselves for another week of strikes. I, incidentally, refuse to cower to Mick Lynch and with a hardy bunch of train refugees take a Berrys coach from Taunton to London. It’s a quarter of the cost, takes about five hours and is too cramped for the laptop. Famous Five? It’s more Noddy Goes to Toyland.

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