Train service has gone off the rails

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Here’s a story Michael Portillo will not be covering on his ‘Great British Rail Journeys’. I recently paid £76 for a Chesterfield-Birmingham return ticket, a journey of one hour, with Cross Country Trains.

The 12.07 Edinburgh to Plymouth train I had booked on was 48 minutes late arriving at Chesterfield. Once on board, we were told that because the train was ‘losing power’ it would terminate at Derby.

At Derby, all the passengers had to transfer to an already packed four coach train. It left 20 minutes late, and after standing crushed together in the aisles like canned sardines, and being vomited on by the sick man next to me, I arrived smelling like a decomposing rat, just after 3pm.

The train guard told us that we could all write to Cross Country Trains ‘for compensation’. I wrote on 2nd November, and have received no response. Like most 21st century commerce, the attitude is “We’ve got your money - now clear off.”

There is a public groundswell, as highlighted by various polls, in favour of bringing British railways back under public ownership.

Critics look back at British Rail and will bang on about ‘curly sandwiches’ and inefficiency, but compared to the ridiculously expensive quagmire of Mickey Mouse privatised train lines we now have in the UK, we don’t need rose-coloured glasses when we look back. Thirty years ago I could buy a single ticket in the most remote Yorkshire station for a destination such as Portsmouth and not have to face the Byzantine commercial bureaucracy of multiple ticketing problems across the profit-led borders of a dozen different operators, nor would I have to stand most of the way.

I have travelled the railways extensively abroad, and soon realised that Britain’s uncomfortable, expensive and overcrowded railways are a laughing stock.

For example, if you live in Woking and work in London, a distance of 22 miles, a season ticket will cost over £3,268 per year. Compare this with an Italian commuter, who travels 22 miles from Valletri to Rome - his season ticket is £336.

The odd fact is that these UK rail bandits can only trouser their millions because we, Joe Public, still maintain the rails they run on through Network Rail, publicly owned, which this year was reclassified as a central government body, adding around £34 billion to public sector net debt.

Until this problem is shunted onto Westminster’s main line, then the next time I’m due in Birmingham, I’ll drive.