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Railwatch 076 - July 1998

PLATFORM - Your letters

Traveller's aid

As you may know, the majority of travel agencies, including Thomas Cook, are not prepared to undertake Continental rail bookings, apart from those offered by some of the ferry companies as part of a package involving a ferry crossing of the Channel or North Sea.

Might I suggest, therefore, that RDS members be invited, through the medium of Railwatch, to submit names and addresses of any agencies which will undertake such bookings, and have demonstrated their competence.

Any list resulting from such an appeal might be published in Railwatch, or if too extensive  - which I doubt! - issued by RDS as a separate leaflet, checked and updated from time to time.

For starters, I submit the details of the Connex Rail Shop in Canterbury, from whom I have just had excellent service in booking a sea and rail trip via Holland to Denmark and home again. The address is as follows: Connex South East Ltd, Canterbury Rail Shop, Station Road West, Canterbury CT2 8AN. Tel: 01233 617838.

Alan Dodson, 6 Newtown Road, Malvern, Worcs WR14 1NZ

Editor's note: A good idea! Readers can send their recommendations to me. For people with access to the internet, information on foreign rail travel is available via the Railwatch web site.

Ticket rip-off

I live in Stockton-on-Tees, a town that no longer boasts a railway station with a ticket office. I have to use a travel agent to book a seat on an intercity train from Darlington.

This week, my usual travel agent, A. T. Mays, now trading as Carlson Wagonlits Travel, of 21 Bishop's Street, Stockton, charged me a booking fee of £5, now payable on all transactions of less than £75. My £45 ticket cost me £50. As I was travelling on a senior railcard with a suitcase and hand luggage, I felt I had no choice but to pay up.

I should be interested to know if a £5 booking fee is now normal practice among travel agents handling rail passenger business.

To my mind, the policy seems to devalue the senior railcard holders who form a great many of the railway's clients.

Incidentally, the booked seat (in coach B, seat 2) proved not to exist. It was a space for a wheelchair. Happily, the conductor found me another seat.

Pamela Christy, 7 Mowbray Grove, Bishopsgarth, Stockton-on-Tees TS19 8XA

CrossRail benefits

Direct trains from the regions to Europe would be desirable but there are also many people who just want to make cross-London journeys.

All travellers would benefit from through ticketing, plus ways to change trains in London without having to change stations.

Failing that, there should be transport between rail termini which can cope with large quantities of luggage, bicycles and people in wheelchairs.

This is what RDS should be campaigning for.

Ideally all long-distance services into London would be diverted into an enlarged Thameslink or CrossRail.

A reduced number of termini connected by Thameslink-type trains with plenty of luggage space may be a more realistic aim.

Damian Bell, 7 Ellwod Gardens, Gateshead NE9 5DU

Reaching out

The service from Reading to Redhill continues to Maidstone via Tonbridge. Could it not be extended to Ashford instead of Maidstone? This would enable easier connections from further afield in the UK, even if we are not going to have Eurostars direct from Paris to the North and other destinations.

W J Marshall, 20 Delaporte Close, Epsom, Surrey KT17 4AF

Mystery unlocked

On a recent journey from Brussels to Doncaster I decided to stop in London. Looking for somewhere to leave three heavy bags for a day, I discovered that, in true free enterprise fashion, there was a choice.

At Waterloo, where the left luggage facilities had been franchised to an independent company, the charge was £3.50 per bag.

At King's Cross, where the facilities are still provided in-house, a spacious locker did the job for £2.50.

Anthony Berridge, Barton Vale Cottage, Caistor Road, Barton upon Humber, North Lincolnshire DN18 6DY

Passengers penalised

In Railwatch 75, Ted Roberts wrote about the misfortune of Valerie Evans who was featured in Railwatch 74.

It is quite obvious Mr Roberts is talking from the point of view of a hard businessman.

Mrs Evans does not expect a social service from the railway, although Mr Roberts seems to imply she does.

She is merely criticising the way the service she regularly uses is operating under privatisation. And quite rightly so, for it is to her extreme disadvantage. There are many others who are in a similar situation to Mrs Evans, because of privatisation.

The railway is still a public service whether publicly- or privately-owned and to discourage potential passengers through charging excessively high fares is unethical. While it may be necessary for rail operators to produce a profit, penalising the average citizen is not the answer.

Bankers, city advisers, civil servants, solicitors and certain Conservative politicians are, I suggest, among the minority who have benefited most from the privatisation of the rail network. In general the losers have been the public.

The privatisation system for the network, as most of us will agree, is seriously flawed. If the monopoly was removed from each route, allowing for greater competition per journey, then perhaps the passenger might receive a better deal.

At the moment, this is not the case, with one operator per service, leaving the traveller at the operator's mercy.

David Bailey, Hillsboro, Aboveway, Main Road, Exminster, Devon EX6 8DT

Guided busways

There are very few successful guided busways in Britain or elsewhere. Adelaide, Essen, Ipswich and Leeds add up to 13 miles.

Local authority executives advocate busways, so that when they fail they can be surrepti-tiously turned into roads thus increasing road mileage and their tax-spending empire.

It is no coincidence that county councils with the worst rail reopening records are those with busway schemes and which have car factories in their ambit, Oxfordshire and Bedfordshire, for example.

A Leighton Buzzard-Luton busway will halve the railway business to Luton airport and reduce the number of passengers transferring to other rail services.

It is odd that busways are suddenly fashionable. Their function is to distract the public from the shortcomings of their local authority advocates  - nothing else.

People who are reluctant to park their cars at rail stations will certainly not park them at bus stops.

Busways do not comply with the Road Traffic Reduction Act. Paragraph 2 requires councils to declare their actions in reducing road congestion in regard to freight.

Lyndon Elias, 10 Sandringham Road, Didcot OX11 8TP

Level playing field

Mr Tonks writes (Railwatch 75) in defence of guided busways, and his letter opens up a wider field of debate. While agreeing that all buses are economically and environmentally more friendly than private cars, and as a result of using a huge road network are more flexible in operation than trains, I wish to point out that they are economically and environmentally less efficient than trains.

Steel wheel on steel rail must have less rolling resistance than rubber tyre on tarmac, asphalt or concrete, and it is not surprising that the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution have reported that road transport uses three to four times as much energy as rail.

I feel that RDS does not stress this fact sufficiently in its campaign for a level playing-field. Many problems would not exist if road usage were appropriately charged for. While this objective cannot be achieved overnight, the public needs to be acquainted with the scale of the hidden subsidy to road users. This is not an easy task, but it does need to be attempted, as any uninformed debate is counter-productive.

Neville K. Upton, 21 Rockingham Gardens, Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands B74 2PN

Central Trains' buses

I was surprised to read the letter from Richard Brown, Chief Executive, Trains Division, National Express Group, in Railwatch 75.

Might I suggest that for passengers regularly inconvenienced by the ineptitude of Central Trains, it is nothing short of insulting to read the hand-wringing lament about unserviceable trains.

To accept a franchise while not realising that more rolling stock - costing more than you were prepared to pay - was needed, begs a question about business acumen.

Sadly, Mr Brown is somewhat out of touch with the perennial problems of Central Trains.

"We had a problem for a few weeks last summer on the Nottingham-Skegness route" is an understatement. This problem made headline news as passengers refused to use the buses Central Trains believed to be an acceptable substitute for a train, and the local constabulary in Skegness had to be called in to avoid a riot!

Problems abound elsewhere. On the Lincoln-Nottingham-Leicester-Coventry service, trains are frequently overcrowded, passengers turned away, trains cancelled or delayed because, among other reasons, staff were having tea breaks or altercations.

If this is commitment "to growing our rail business with quality products" it is a strange manifestation.

Martin Cobley, 67 Dovecote Lane, Beeston, Nottingham NG9 1JG

Highland link

Can I put in a plug for the Strathspey Railway? This year it will be extending its services into the island platform at Aviemore's main line station, allowing cross-platform interchange with ScotRail trains. Next year it should begin services on the first stage of its northern extension, between Boat of Garten and Broomhill. This will be a major step towards its long-term goal of restoring services all the way to Grantown-on-spey, Strathspey's largest town.

Andrew McCracken, 44 Kylintra Crescent, Grantown-on-Spey PH26 3ES

Pacer country

You report in Railwatch 75 that the bottom line for Chris Gibb, operations manager of Wales & West, is that the railway is a business. I hope Mr Gibb also remembers that Wales &West is expected to provide a service for which a subsidy is paid.

To date, the most noticeable change initiated by Wales & West is the widespread use of Pacers. Although in a letter to me, a representative of Chris Gibb has acknowledged that their use is not ideal in areas of jointed track, these trains continue to appear regularly in south Pembrokeshire and other parts of west Wales, and provide a particularly uncomfortable ride.

To the best of my recollection such trains were never used in this area by British Rail so their present use can only be described as a significant fall in the standard of comfort.

K J Bowskill, Ael-y-Bryn, Merlin's Cross, Pembroke SA71 4AG

Reopening

I welcome the reopening of rail services but many closed tracks were originally designed to serve narrow local needs and often do not provide an optimum basis for maximising today's potential for future rail traffic.

For example a restored Luton-Dunstable service would be far more useful if extended to Aylesbury, via the old Cheddington branch, rather than to Leighton Buzzard. This route could greatly reduce public transport journey times between several closely adjacent large and growing towns and provide the local population with a practical alternative to current car use as well as much easier access to jobs in nearby towns.

Four local trains each way per hour, pass through Cheddington - any level of service on a new cross route should have no connection-timing problems. Distances from Cheddington, in miles, are Leighton Buzzard 4, Aylesbury 7, Dunstable 7, Berkhamsted 8, Bletchley 10, Hemel Hempstead 12, Luton 12, Milton Keynes 13, Wolverton 16, and Watford 19. The whole area would have greatly improved access to two major north/south rail routes. Today, for many journeys, it is often quicker and more convenient to make a more expensive journey via London.

Aylesbury is now much larger than it was 50 years ago but has, apart from its local southbound services, become largely isolated. Access to the north via Princes Risborough is somewhat indirect and provides limited connections.

On another matter, I strongly disagree that fitting tables in West Anglia Great Northern trains will improve them. I have yet to find a table that is not uncomfortably high and impossible to use for the serious reading or writing work with which I normally fill my extensive travelling time.

Another problem is that the aisle leg is usually badly sited and causes backache due to having to sit askew. When reserving a seat I now always specify no table seat and, as a last resort, have much preferred to use as far from ideal, tip-up seat in the door compartment. The latest first class tables are even worse. They have rimmed edges, apparently especially designed to bruise any arms placed on them.

The newer individual seats often cause discomfort with their assumption of a standard body size and shape. I sometimes wonder if designers of modern rail stock ever travel by train.

R. G. Silson, Near Station, Tring, Herts HP23 5QX

Stranraer problems

John Snewin's statement in Railwatch 74 that the direct route from Stranraer to Dumfries "could and should be reopened" is at least debatable. Of the four major viaducts on the line, none of which has received any maintenance for over 30 years, one has mature trees growing out of the masonry.

One was considered so weak during the war as to require knitting together with lengths of rail bolted round the piers. One (the beautiful bow-string girders across Loch Ken) is now too dangerous to walk across. And one has been completely destroyed as a military exercise - even the rubble was cleared from the site.

Reopening, even as a single track, has been costed at about £30 million which seems on the cheap side to me. It would be interesting to know how many people in Dumfries and Stranraer (with populations respectively of about 30,000 and 10,000, and 70 miles apart) have business with each other, and how long it would take to recoup the investment from their fares. Do people in Arundel worry about not having a direct line to Devizes?

This leads naturally to Keith Marsh's plea, in the same issue, for more electrification. He must be aware that in the new privatised railway, nothing will be done that does not produce an economic return within the life of the franchise.

Now, Railtrack does not simply improve the infrastructure and then declare open house. The costs are recovered from the franchisees in track access charges, which the franchisees naturally want to keep as low as possible.

Paying for electrification and new electric stock will not leave so much profit in seven years as using bus bodies on lightweight chassis. This is not the franchisees' fault. It is a fundamental problem of the thoughtless way the privatisation was done.

Michael Spencer, 180 Cloch Caravan Park, Gourock, Inverclyde PA19 1BA

Taxi links

I agree with your correspondent in Railwatch 75 that RDS should not ignore the contribution made by taxis to train travel.

They often provide the means whereby passengers travel to and from their homes to the rail station. This is particularly true when they are burdened with heavy luggage, and the alternative is a long wait for a bus which often has little space for passengers' belongings.

Trains should be part of an integrated transport system, which means encouraging taxi use if necessary. After all, they provide the flexible element needed to persuade car owners to give up their vehicles.

Tim Mickleburgh, 33 Littlefield Lane, Grimsby, Lincs DN31 2AZ

Timetable mystery

When I tried to obtain the summer timetable produced by Railtrack, I found that the supplier at Chester station had received only a limited supply and that, even before the time-table came into operation, all the timetables had been snapped up. When the supplier tried to obtain more, it emerged that the whole of this region had been undersupplied on this occasion, and that reprints cannot be produced. Is Railtrack really interested in promoting passenger traffic? Professor W A L Blyth, 9 St John's Road, Queen's Park, Chester CH4 7AL

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