Coach and Horses

“L’pool Sth P’way (ALLE) (ALE)” is the first thing I spot. Never one for troubling the Plain English Society, those good burghers of Network Rail have probably outdone even themselves here. The rot set in when printed timetables moved from intuitive layout (running down the way) to cuckoo-bananas (along the way with Scrabble-racks scattered about in ever growing undergrowth of anecdotes and emoji symbols.)

It’s a lazy Sunday as I run my eyes along the timetable. There are more pigeons than passengers. There are more men asking “Wanna help our lads in ‘vganistan madam?” than there are rail staff. There is a page of departures on a screen showing six rail replacement bus services to three trains, and the trains are all stopping short of their usual destinations. Chorley, Wigan NW, Burnely Man. Rd – the abbreviated adjuncts to the railways on this cold, lazy, dull January day.

Accepting that Sunday is the travelling man’s worst nightmare is what British people have done for decades. The attitude is passed down through the genes, like distaste for carrots or women reading the news or that Radio 4 announcer who sounds somewhere between Brian Blessed and Barry White. Sunday’s are Britain’s shut down days, an overhang from the days when the country actually closed up for good, leaving the hungover teenagers from generations past stuck without a SPAR or ASDA to nip to in their best club-smoked Superdrys. Whilst the Church still dictates one or two things around God’s day of rest – how crazy that the Bible was so specific about the total available floor space a shop must cover if it must open before 11am! – the slow erosion of its haughty status as the day of respectful reverence by all the louder, naughtier, busier days has only swept so far up the sands. For so many institutions, including our dear railways, Sunday is the day for respecting the Lord’s mysterious ways, by using his name to question the stoic pertinacity of rail staff who can’t fathom why being stuck on a coach with a luke-warm Upper Crust baguette is such an inconvenience.

Actually, it’s rarely the rail staff who lack total empathy for the weariness of the short distance traveller who wants a railway station to be a railway station, rather than an ad-hoc coach stop. The hi-viz wearing hired-helps armed with clipboards and no information are wound up and let go from about half-ten, when gangs of offcuts from 1960s Butlins promotional videos turn up to be given a 64-seater and rural back roads to negotiate with all the top-to-toe charm of a broken foot. With Sunday still a day of rest for the bus drivers union, this double-pay jaunt down an unknown A-road is more trouble and its worth. “Why,” they seem to ask on behalf of the Network Rail management who put them there, “would anybody need to travel on a Sunday?”

This question was certainly asked in its own little way two weeks ago when Network Rail once again, via those ever helpful souls in the Department for (wrecking) Transport, considered Boxing Day to be a National Day of Mourning.  Reason for the entire rail network to grind to a halt unless you were rich enough to have a flight from Heathrow on the 26th December? Politicians fought through the Christmas TV schedules to apportion blame. “It’s the DfT being stubborn,” tweeted policy wonk RoboSuit #4. “I blame the current Secretary of State” bleeped policy wonk RoboSkirt 5000. “A woman with five boxes and a carry-case wanted to travel from Carlisle to Leeds on Boxing Day. You won’t believe what happened next!” cheered BuzzFeed.

Boxing Day 2013 should, I hope, be the last of its kind. Outside the Heathrow Airport shuttle, not one train ran across the country. Train stations lay in poetic rest, lights twinkling from trees and arcade machines, clocks ticked for no man, pigeons snoozed in lazy repose, UpperCrust staff stayed tucked up in bed, no warmer than any of their products. Cost to the country? Cost to train operating companies for that matter? Nobody knows. Or dares ask. Union bosses must have looked on with barely disguised envy. All we need to do is wait until Boxing Day?!

It is far more important, far more necessary, far more bleedingly obvious, that this country needs to re-examine the impact of Sunday on its transport infrastructure. That the day after Christmas Day is automatically considered fair game for a shut-down lacks any kind of reasoned scrutiny. If Boxing Day falls on a Sunday, does that make the following Monday a further close-down day? Winding down the rail network on Christmas Eve makes sense – but the day after? Who within the confused layers of rail transport in the UK considers it sensible to enforce another day of family time together when so many people [/blokes] just wants to settle back home [/avoid another ‘Then Muslims’ talk with Auntie Jean].

Rather than look at changing the way engineering work, or staff working patterns, work in an age far removed from the decades ago framework on which so much of the railways still run, the industry is focusing on too many unnecessary ‘projects’ for purely self-congratulatory reasons. More trains on a Sunday or HS2? Less disruption due to a lack of available drivers, or more disruption thanks to HS2?

Not content with spending £300m on jollies and japes, the HS2 lobby is set to spend the same again, every six months or so, on propaganda and leaflet dropping. Not one penny on improving travel in rural areas, in remote towns, on Sundays, or on Boxing Day. Not one penny on the infrastructure, only on themselves. It will only get worse as the DfT, its lobbyist chums and obedient lapdogs such as Rail magazine, conspire to shut-out any criticism by nefarious means. When the only funding stream available to the industry is a £30bn London Euston expressway, rather than putting on actual trains to Blackpool on a Sunday morning, then we truly are living in a country with its sensibilities taken for a ride.

Which is more than most passengers could hope so, if they’re thinking of travelling to L’pool Sth P’way or not.