What exactly, the long-suffering taxpayer is entitled to ask, is the nation getting from the £4,000 per minute currently being poured into the railway – on top of the usual subsidies?
I would love to respond that train services are improving all the time, offering a reliable, good-value alternative to road travel. But after meandering around the network this week, from Yorkshire to Sussex, I have concluded the nation’s railway faces existential risks. Unless the industry ups its game very soon, more passengers will drift away and the spiral of decline will gather momentum.
Tens of thousands of dedicated women and men do their best to deliver a decent service for travellers. But that is simply not enough.
Regular national rail strikes began 15 months ago. The industrial action by members of the RMT and Aslef unions, in furtherance of a dispute on pay and working arrangements, has hit millions of travellers by train. Petrol retailers, coach companies and airlines celebrate every new strike call.
Trains are becoming irrelevant for the vast majority of the UK population – who might have considered using them once but are understandably unimpressed with the uncertain prospects of reaching their destination.
Meanwhile, the prime minister literally has no time for trains. Rishi Sunak chooses a helicopter over perfectly plausible rail journeys such as London to Southampton. His wider disdain for the train was demonstrated when he halved Air Passenger Duty on domestic aviation earlier this year – a move calculated (one presumes) to increase the number of airline passengers between Edinburgh and London at the expense of the railway. I can guarantee that £4,000 per minute will not be allowed to continue.
Another partner in the unholy alliance against train travel: the railway’s management.
The current shambles was perfectly summed up by what should have been a simple journey from Leeds to Sheffield on Tuesday. Like most people, I book online – often when walking to the station. When I bought the ticket, I was mildly amused to be warned online: “The lifts between platform 2 and the overbridge are currently out of order at Alnmouth station.”
I happened to be booked on a small part of Britain’s longest train, the daily 8.20am CrossCountry service from Aberdeen to Penzance. I can imagine for an important but presumably small number of people, the failure of a lift at a minor station on the coast of Northumberland is significant. But since the Grampians-to-Cornwall express had left that beautiful coastal location over two hours earlier, it was rather redundant information.
Now, I had not been to Leeds station for a year. With increasing panic, as I approached I realised I simply couldn’t find the place. As I sprinted for the CrossCountry train, I reflected that perhaps, on balance, a more valuable message for passengers starting a journey at Leeds station – one of the busiest in the country – is that it is in the centre of a massive redevelopment that makes access near-impossible.
Rather than telling me about some random lifts at a station 150 miles away, the ticketing system could have more helpfully said: “To have any hope of reaching the platforms you will need to join the orderly queue threading through the middle of Pret à Manger (pausing if you wish, time permitting, for a decaf oat latte) because it appears to be the only viable connection from the street into the concourse. Good luck everybody.”
I made the train, but only because it was running late. Talking of which, I wrote this column aboard a later late train, the so-called 9.01pm from Sheffield to London. It set off from South Yorkshire 20 minutes behind schedule, limped along with increasing tardiness and eventually arrived on the wrong day. The train staff chose not to explain the problem.
Enjoy that subsidy while it lasts.