Tuesday, August 1, 2017

I used to love train travel – but it has become an inexcusable rip-off
​Five hours on a train enjoying the view and listening to music​ is​ much better than chucking another car on the road. It shouldn’t be a luxury

Passing by … the pretty village of Alnmouth on the coast of Northumberland between Newcastle and Berwick-upon-Tweed. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

Tuesday 1 August 2017 

There are two places I call “home”. There is home, the place where I grew up, where my family still lives and where I know people to say hello to in the supermarket. Then there is home, the place where I live now, where I work, where my friends live and where I have built my own existence. It gets confusing, at least linguistically: “I am going home – I will be home in a couple of days.” And like a lot of other people who split themselves in this way, for years and years I spent countless hours on trains, shuttling up and down the country, between the two lives.

These days, though, I hardly ever catch the train. I say catch, but the idea of simply catching a train for a journey outside the city suggests a carefree, last-minute freedom that has long since evaporated into weeks of planning and negotiating increasingly baroque riffs on the words “off” and “peak”, in the hope of being charged less than a return flight to somewhere far warmer than Lincolnshire. This week Labour released a report that called overcrowding on railways “a national disgrace” and noted that fares are up by 27% since 2010. Passengers are, says Labour MP Andy McDonald, “paying through the nose for the dubious privilege of being crammed into ever-fuller trains”.

Recently, owing to a family emergency, I went home three times in the space of a fortnight. It was the kind of event that could not be planned for. The first time, after the phone call that made it imperative, I went online to see how much a ticket would be if I travelled the next morning, the soonest I could leave.

At the risk of sounding like the kind of person who puts a full stop before @-ing a company on Twitter – “.@starbucks, my skinny latte was not hot enough this morning it’s a disgrace!!!!!” – here are some of the ticket options that came up. For a journey that usually takes roughly an hour and a half, I could have gone for an off-peak return. Depending on the service, it cost between £63.50 and £127. If I wanted to travel there and back “any time”, that would cost £167. If the luxury of sitting down, potentially next to a plug socket, maybe even with a table, is not quite fancy enough, there is a first-class option, too, with tea, wifi, a bit of food and some extra legroom. That kicks in at £264.

It is a ludicrous amount of money for such a short journey and, frankly, an inexcusable rip-off. I have often blamed myself for not having the foresight to book far enough in advance, for leaving things until the last minute, which used to happen often, because I am bad at planning and remembering commitments. To some extent, most of the time, I could see that maybe it was my fault for not being more organised. But this was different. It seemed punitive, unfair. As a result of the astonishing prices, I did not buy the ticket with the kind of flexibility that I actually needed in those circumstances; in the end, I picked the more awkward and cheaper train times and had to work around them. I did the same when I made the journey again, less than a week later.

The third time, I gave in. It costs £30 to fill the tank of my little city car, the kind of vehicle that invites Audi owners to drive too closely behind it and gesture – kindly, I’m sure – that it’s now time to pull out of a junction regardless of traffic. So I drove up. I did not feel like driving. I did not feel like doubling the journey time, which is what driving on that route does, and then some. But I did feel forced into it by the fact that, for my own journey home at least, trains now seem like an impossible luxury. That is to say nothing of the environmental impact of chucking yet another car on to the A1. It should not be this way.

For me, this is an occasional concern. I am not even commuting by rail – Labour’s report showed that it is on commuter services in particular that overcrowding has reached record levels, and it is only going to get worse. The most crowded service, an early morning Southern rail route, typically carries more than double its capacity, and I have noticed friends mention the cost of their annual travelcards with a wince.

The sadness is that I used to love a train journey. I still do. If I go to Scotland, I would rather spend five hours on a train looking out at Britain – the landscape between Newcastle and Berwick-upon-Tweed is surely one of the most beautiful in the country – than 45 minutes on a plane, ears popping above the clouds. I love switching off, listening to music, reading a book, watching the world outside change from flat farmland to ragged coastline.

The A1 has its own landmarks – the old Little Chefs that are now sex shops and, erm, the roundabouts – but oddly, it doesn’t compare. Still, I suppose, at least, I have freed up a seat.


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