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Tuesday, 24 December, 2002, 11:52 GMT
The view from our rail champ
Jon Yuill, BBC News Online's rail commuters' champion, logs his thoughts about the wrongs and occasional rights of our rail system
Tuesday 24 December
Thanks for the feedback
After the first Yuill Log, the e-mails have simply flooded in. Both of them. Actually, many hundreds, with the sort of majority of sentiment you only get in an Iraqi election, reflecting the desperation of the travelling public. Not a single operating company escaped your wrath.
Dave Black, from Scotland, suggests the government open the franchises up to offers from the French, Germans and Dutch (wasn't it Mussolini who had some success in this field?) And I for one think it's a good idea. After all, Mrs T sold off practically everything else to foreign interests, so why not give them a shot at the railways.
Darren of England feels progress would be quickly made if we took away ministers' cars and see how they like having to use public transport. Simon Quick can't wait to have cameras installed on trains to prevent vandalism and deter violence.
BJ from the UK would like to rip up the rails completely and lay tarmac. These super roads would provide fast, direct access to cars by day and lorries by night. I can't see Friends of the Earth going along with that one BJ, but I'm sure there's someone out there who could provide statistics to prove it would actually improve the environment. If nothing else, it would give John Prescott somewhere to park his motor collection.
Making another good point is Geoff Caesar (UK), who says that road users get their roads subsidised by everyone, but mostly passengers back the railways only. And Martin Edwards (UK) has been tipped off by a fellow rail traveller and member of the industry that things won't improve because "the same idiots who ran Railtrack are now running Network Rail!"
As it's the Season of Goodwill, I also want to relay some e-mails which praised the rail system. Alex Freeman felt that Great Western was doing a reasonable job. From Linda in the USA come wishes that "we had you train system over in the States". We wish you could take it, Linda. Linda claims that compared to their system, ours is clean and comfortable with friendly staff. Don't do drugs Linda.
Finally, I've had several e-mails from people offering to fund me to stand for parliament. Now that would be fun. "Would the honourable member from Essex please remove his boot from the transport minister's backside!"
Happy Christmas, especially to all the staff of the rail companies who try, despite everything, to deliver us to our destinations. We know it isn't easy. My special sympathies go out to those who have to man platform 12 at Liverpool Street.
I'll be back in the New Year. In this case, at least, a Yuill Log is not just for Christmas!
Thursday 19 December
Up, up and away with the fairies
I want you to imagine, just for a minute, that you are a man called George Muir. He is a very important man in the rail industry. He is, in fact, boss of the Association of Train Operating (sic) Companies. Imagine you're sitting in a nice office somewhere, discussing what can be done to improve things.
"Right, our passengers, oops, sorry, customers have had an absolutely awful decade on our appalling rail system. Passengers have had suffered year on year. Even judging by our own figures, our trains are now more crowded, more delayed and filthier than they've ever been. So here's the plan. We're going to put up rail fares!"
Brilliant! If it weren't true, it would be a joke equal to rail network itself. But it is true, and, judging by the hundreds of e-mails I've received since becoming an unofficial Victor Meldrew for BBC News Online users, I know I'm not alone in being deeply angered at these fair rises. One wouldn't mind so much if we had seen an improvement commensurate with the rise, but many rail passengers have seen things get worse.
The only good news is that season ticket holders on most lines will get some sort of discount. Anglia train passengers will actually get a cut of up to 4% as even they recognise their inability to run a punctual service. Now imagine you are Ken Livingstone. "I know, the railways are so poor, let's invent a 'congestion penalty', just in case anyone thinks they can get off the railway and drive". As I said, if it weren't true...
As the temperature plummets as low as a rail subsidy, I turn again to the subject of the humble train heater. I've had loads of response from this, but still it keeps cropping up. It goes like this: when it's really warm, not only are train heaters left on, but also the ventilation system, known to us passengers as "a window", is hopelessly inadequate.
Then, when it's freezing enough to worry a brass monkey, the heaters on trains seem to go berserk, creating temperatures akin to a rain forest. I have heard the excuse that thermostats are employed and should cut on and off as needed. Well, whatever the system is, it isn't working. Tube trains, they claim, are too small to install decent air conditioning. This isn't the case with overland trains. So come on, no other country would put up with it, get your act together and design a train that's comfortable.
Thanks to everyone who e-mailed following my first Yuill Log on Tuesday. It was a tremendous response. I've got them all and am reading through them.
Wednesday 18 December
Marx my words
Well, now we all know. Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, who has the eyebrows of Groucho Marx and the hair of Pope John Paul, delivered no miracles in Parliament yesterday, just a bleak admission (dressed up as good news), that things will only get worse.
Down went the government's targets to reduce congestion on the roads, and down with it went £300m earmarked for the railways. It would, said Mr Darling, be decades before it gets better. Decades is how long it felt for thousands to get to work on the Connex South East lines into London Bridge, on Wednesday.
The rail network, he went on, is "far worse than anticipated two years ago". Err, sorry? Practically everyone on the planet has been forecasting disaster for years and years. Scores of people have died in rail crashes. And NOW he says things are perhaps a little bit difficult. A joke's one thing, but this awful situation is far beyond it. The dire state of our rail network is the result of decade after decade of neglect. Remember that next time some smarmy politician comes asking for your vote.
Finally, I said in my last log that I'd give a mention to some of the habits of my fellow passengers. Let's kick off with the serial mobile User. One woman in particular. As soon as she gets settled, out comes the 'phone and off she goes. Pausing only for breath and the occasional loss of signal, this non-stop verbal diarrhoea goes on until I leave the train some 45 minutes later. What her 'phone bills are, I shudder to think. We've been treated to intimate details of her recent operation, the state of her marriage and the peccadilloes of her office colleagues. Yes, it is irritating, and no, she says nothing that couldn't keep. Indeed, she often ends conversations with "I'll see you in ten minutes". For pities sake, we've got rid of smoking on the train, let's go for mobile free carriages before they find a body on the track!
Tuesday 17 December
Higher fares, fewer trains
Ho Ho Ho, as I sit here writing this first instalment of Yuill Log, I'm listening to a radio programme about rail fares going up and services being cut. The chap speaking on behalf of the government is having a tough time. So he should be. At least, I think he's from the government. Trouble is, there's someone from the SRA (Strategic Rail Authority), someone from the RUA (Rail Users Association), and I'm sure there was somebody representing the UDA (Ulster Defence Association). Come to think of it, they might make a better fist of it.
That's the trouble with the alphabet soup of today's' rail network - it's difficult to keep up. So many companies, so few trains on time. Perhaps they should find a modern day Dr Beeching to cut the number of rail authority acronyms.
Seriously though, I'm sure I wasn't the only commuter listening who hung his head in disbelief at hearing of possible fare increases on top of fewer services. However, the government chappie was adamant they weren't going to just throw money down the drain in the form of subsidies to rail companies.
And as simplistic as it sounds, I think that's where the problem is. A modern day society needs certain elements to make it function. Many of these simply will never make money (libraries, museums, and universities). But we still need them. A country that can't get its workforce to their jobs is heading for the buffers.
Last week, my regular TOC (train operating company) was handing out labels to hang round the necks of commuters asking fellow travellers to wake them at their chosen station. The spokesman cheerfully said that at this festive time of year, trains had a "jolly atmosphere" and it would be awfully good fun if we woke inebriated passengers so they didn't miss their stops.
Call me Scrooge, but at this time of year the atmosphere on my late night trains is anything but jolly. Having a drunk spew or fall dribbling over you isn't jolly, it's disgusting - the aggressive drunk even more so. I'm not sure these signs round the neck are needed. I regularly fall asleep, only to wake and find we haven't moved an inch anyway.
Readers of BBC News Online will be familiar with my desire for common sense to return to our railways (some hope). A good example of this was the driver's announcements last week. At every single stop, our friendly driver was reciting the customer safety notices, which explain what to do in event of an emergency.
Now, I know this poor chap's been told he must do it, but really, at every station? On a commuter service? I'd say 99.9% of those forced to listen to this mantra must hear it several hundred times a year.
Finally, can anybody reveal the culprit of the appalling stench on platform 12 at Liverpool Street? My friend Al reckons' it's the Dutch coming in from Harwich and wreaking awful revenge on us East Anglians for some ancient sea battle off the coast. Whoever it is needs help. Puddles of raw sewage lay within the station, just yards from food stalls. Bizarrely, it only seems to afflict platform 12.
As the festive week approaches, I shall be reporting on some of the stranger practices of fellow commuters and the ongoing struggle to get to work.
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