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Could we have a sane railway system, please?

Brendan Martin, 25 September 2013

What on earth must first time foreign visitors to Britain make of the railway shambles greeting them at London’s Gatwick Airport?

I live in London and have flown in and out of all London’s airports far too many times, but the Gatwick chaos still got the better of me last Sunday.

It was bad enough that EasyJet were offering Gatwick Express tickets for sale during the flight, although we knew (and told them) that the service wasn’t running, because of engineering work.

Then, just past immigration, we came upon a desk offering rail tickets for sale. So we could avoid queues at the train station itself by buying them while waiting for our baggage to arrive.

But, as ever with Britain’s privatised and fragmented railway, the simple business of getting from the airport to the city turned out to be anything but.

Although we specifically asked for tickets valid on any train, and were told that’s what we had been sold, when we got to the train platform and studied the small print we found they said “FCC only”.

Did that mean they were valid only on slow First Capital Connect trains, even though the receipt for our payment for the tickets was issued by Southern Trains?

The next train was a fast Southern Trains service, so we were determined to take it. But an inspector on the platform told us we would have to buy new tickets, which would mean missing the train.

So we asked a second inspector, who said that, because of the engineering works, all operators were accepting each other's tickets.

But half an hour later, when we arrived at London Bridge, a third inspector accosted us. He represented Southern Trains -- the very company that issued the receipt for our ticket payment -- but said the tickets only entitled us to travel on the trains of its rival!

Madness, and by this time we’d had enough of trying to negotiate our way through a chaotic system. So we defied the staff at the gate to stop us marching through. They didn’t.

That was the fun part, but what would first-time visitors make of it all? What a way to greet visitors to our capital!

Fragmentation of Britain’s railway has caused far more problems than the humiliating hassle we faced last Sunday, but somehow the episode summed up the sheer waste of human resources it has caused.

Instead of well-trained and properly informed staff helping travellers through an intermodal system and dealing with real fare dodgers,  we have misselling of tickets, badly informed and competing staff, and intimidation of honest passengers just trying to get home!

These levels of organisational incompetence and bureaucratic bullying reveal Britain’s railways as the bastard of the worst caricatures of public and private sector practice, when what we need is the best of both.

If the mayor of London really wants to welcome visitors to our great city, isn’t it time he did something to sort this out? If not, can we at least have confidence that a future Labour mayor would do so?

So here’s a question for the only person so far to declare as prospective Labour candidate for the next mayoral election, who happens to be the leading railway commentator, Christian Wolmar: could we have a sane railway system, please?

Then railway staff can get back to serving the public instead of annoying us, and the public can start treating them with the respect they would deserve.

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