By Michael Williams
IT WAS known as God’s Wonderful Railway – and with good reason. In its glory days, until the drab hand of nationalisation fell on it in 1948, the old Great Western Railway was the most admired railway in the world. It’s carriages were the most comfortable, its engines the most elegant and sparkling. It’s routes extended to the most beautiful corners of the land. And it had been engineered by that most visionary of Englishmen, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Yesterday there may have been a nostalgic tear or two wiped away as First Great Western – one of Britain’s most frequently criticised train companies – announced that it is “going back to the name given to us by our illustrious founder, Brunel”.
Who could fail to admire the promotional image of a brand new train painted in the Great Western’s legendary Brunswick green, bearing the GWR monogram in the setting of Paddington Station – Brunel’s magnificent “Cathedral of Steam”?
Certainly the company – nicknamed by some of its passengers “Last Late Western” – at last has something to crow about. Its main lines are being modernised under a £7.5bn scheme with a fleet of state-of-the-art trains introduced from 2017 that can run in electric or diesel form. They will replace the present antiquated HST trains that date back to the days when Harold Wilson was prime minister, offering up to 24 per cent more seats
Who wouldn’t want to cosy alongside the reassuring image of Brunel, confident in his famous hat and cigar, after a string of troubles – including being branded as one of the UK’s most overcrowded train operators, running “cattle class” trains and an investigation that revealed booking staff were not offering the cheapest tickets to customers. Another survey last month claimed that First Great Western’s standard class tickets were among the most expensive in the country – with a ticket from London to Bath costing £92, the equivalent of 86p per mile.
But the problems besetting FGW are not unique. Many experts see a deep malaise affecting Britain’s railways, with overcrowding endemic on many routes, spiralling costs and ever more delays. This is accompanied by a byzantine ticketing system – incomprehensible to most passengers – and some of the highest fares in Europe. In June the government was forced to “pause” (Orwellian-speak for “stop”) work on two major electification schemes, which had formed a key plank in the Tory election manifesto. Costs on the Midland Main Line from London to Sheffield had quadrupled, while the cancellation of the TransPennine scheme was especially embarrassing to the Chancellor, who had seen it as key to his “Northern Powerhouse” plans. A national survey by Transport Focus showed customer satisfaction levels fell to 80% in 2015, meaning one in five journeys was deemed unsatisfactory.
And it’s not just passengers who are disgruntled. Earlier this year Sir Peter Hendy, then Transport Commissioner for London, said trains on the Southeastern company’s services were “like the Wild West. They are shit, awful. And every now and then some people who look like the Gestapo, get on and fine everyone they can. It doesn’t improve your day, does it?”
Hendy has since been appointed chairman of Network Rail – which many regard as the worst basket case of all. The public sector owner and operator of the stations and tracks has missed a third of its targets, with costs spiralling out of control and debts of nearly £40bn. Last weekend, Nicola Shaw, the boss of HS1, Britain’s only high speed railway, who has been charged with investigating the fiasco, told the BBC that privatisation was “on the table.”
All the more reason, then to resist Jeremy Corbyn’s hare-brained call for a return to a nationalised “People’s Railway” – which seems to have won applause from some otherwise sane commentators. Historically, there was no “golden age” of the railway under state ownership, and those who believe so are suffering from delusion or a tragic failure of memory.
In the British Rail era, that ended with privatisation in 1994, trains were in many cases dirtier, slower, and less frequent. There was widespread overmanning and unions had a grip on every aspect of the operation. A policy of deploying high prices to keep passenger numbers down meant that fares could be eye-wateringly high – and the British Rail sandwich was the target of every stand-up comedian in Britain. Never mind an often surly staff for whom customer and service were words never to be uttered in the same sentence, if at all.
We may now regret John Major’s fragmentation of the railways, in which ownership of the trains and the track and running the services was split up. But it is naïve and economically illiterate to think, like Corbyn, that all the bits can be put back in the box like a Hornby train set and reassembled again. Buying back the trains and carriages from the private companies who own them would cost billions, which makes a nonsense of the claim that nationalisation would lead to lower fares.
(We might pause, too, to remember that Britain’s last remnant of the BR-style nationalised railway is London’s Tube system, where unions have held Londoners to ransom in a series of crippling strikes over the summer.)
Instead of harking back to utilitarian days of public ownership, we are on the right track in trying to revive the spirit of what made Britain’s early railways great. The pioneers, like Brunel and Stephenson, knew not just the meaning of glamour and romance, but they understood that quality of service mattered above all – sentiments so sorely lacking on today’s railways. By the towering standards of the original railway companies, today’s railway firms are pygmies indeed.
The old London & North Western, dubbed itself the “Premier Line” and raced its trains from Euston to Scotland against those of its rival, the Great Northern out of King’s Cross. The Midland Railway, meanwhile, was renowned for the sumptuousness of its restaurant cars.
The Great Western was great in almost every sense. In its day, it had the fastest locomotives and the longest-distance non-stop train. It was the first to use the electric telegraph and to adopt standard time. Its expresses, such as the Cornish Riveria Limited, with their chocolate and cream carriages were famous throughout the planet. Its services were a by-word for comfort and reliability.
By contrast, it is sometimes tempting to wonder if, deep in every modern railway operations HQ , there is a department whose sole job is to think up ways of corroding the experience of passengers (or ‘passenger experience’ if you go along with the jargon.)
Here are seats that don’t line up with the windows, garish plasticky train interiors, a cacophony of endless announcements about ‘the next station stop’ and ‘suspicious packages’, and of course the extinction of many of the things that once made rail travel joyous – restaurant cars with waiter service on most express trains, obliging porters, staffed stations, waiting rooms with blazing fires – the list goes on.
In a modern homogenised world, it may seem unreasonable to expect to recover many of these things. But instead of wringing our hands we should recall a phrase used by its admirers to explain the mythology that surrounded the old Great Western. It was more than just a train company, people reckoned, it was an “attitude of mind.”
And “attitude of mind” has never been more needed on today’s beleaguered railways.
Michael Williams’s new book, ‘The Trains Now Departed’, is published by Preface, price £20