It had been a while since I had been to London for a blowout. I studied there and lived at the north and south points of the river for almost 15 years. I have many happy memories. I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon for some last-minute Christmas shopping and a slap-up meal. This could be my mini winter break.
Two singles in advance for a day trip on Wednesday 21st December cost £92.10. But they didn’t allow any flexibility. What if I was having fun and wanted to spend the night? A standard anytime return was £369.40. But, given that there were strikes on December 3, 14, 16 and 17 and that students were going home for the holidays, it would be pounded. So maybe I would be wiser to pay for a first class seat? £510 please. And that was before the last rate hikes.
Or I could ditch the whole rip-off plan and go for a ride on the luxury Pullman-style Hiram Bigham train from Cuzco to Machu Picchu after Christmas. It’s £400 one way, but for that I’d get live music, Peruvian food and pisco sours, and the change would easily pay for a ride back on a not-so-fancy Vistadome Observatory train.
Or I could take the Jazz Railway from Chicago to New Orleans and back, in January, for $531 (£427) – and that includes a berth there or back.
Or I could jump on the Trans-Siberian and do the classic route from Moscow to Vladivostok. Rail guru Mark Smith, the man in seat 61, calls it “a bargain: seven or eight nights and 9,000 miles for as little as 14,500 rubles, or around $210 or £170”. Yes, it’s freezing cold at the moment, and the Foreign Office wouldn’t be keen, but it’s indicative of how scam UK rail travel has become.
Closer to home in Europe, what could I get for my £510? Well, an InterRail to start with. I could get a global pass, covering 33 countries, for an entire month for €503 and use the currency for an upgrade somewhere. If I just wanted a single journey, RailEurope offers Berlin to Vienna direct on the Nightjet service for £26.50 in January. It is a 12 hour journey. If I wanted to do it in a single berth (a luxury not available in the UK) it’s only £158. What should I do with the remaining £350? I could ride Paris-Zurich-Budapest for £324, the last leg in another berth.
When it comes to pricing, the UK is in a league of its own – not a Premier category. It’s always been dark and comical to launch the country’s longest ride on a booking platform to see what comes out of it. A first class ticket on a CrossCountry train from Penzance to Thurso in February? £405.10 – with four changes and taking 26 hours.
Which takes us into another shady tunnel, full of endless runs and multiple stops.
The Manchester train – when running, which is quite rare since Avanti took over and cut services – is one of the fastest intercity trains in the UK. It covers 163 miles in two hours and a bit. It’s 80 miles per hour. It’s not a high-speed Spanish Avenue (193 mph) or a Japanese Hayabusa (198 mph), but I guess it’ll be fine for a small island.
The UK’s main specialty is early Victorian velocities, especially for those residing outside of London.
In 2017, the Coventry-Hull train was named Britain’s slowest for its average speed of 26mph. This year, the wheeled coaches that connect Liverpool to Chester via the Wirral averaged 22.5mph, turning a 16.9-mile journey into a 45-minute excursion.
Wales have extraordinarily poor services. To get from Aberystwyth to Carmarthen – 40 miles separate these major West Wales hubs – you’re looking at a six-hour trip with a change in Shrewsbury.
Some trains in semi-rural England, like the Blackburn-Rainford shunter I recently reported on, are intentionally slow, operating as milk runs rather than functioning A-to-B services.
During the summer, I took one of the last slow services in Spain – the “Regional Express” from Madrid Atocha to Plasencia in Extremadura. It took 2 hours 44 minutes to cover the 155 miles, but it was comfortable, calm – and on time. Return ticket was €17.90. So not so fast, but cheap.
The UK is the only country in the world that combines abysmal timetables, extreme punctuality, hideous interiors, rotting toilets and slow-as-gibberish service with ticket prices aimed at the mega-rich. Add to that the regular strikes and disruptions and it’s no wonder people prefer to rely on their cars.
There is a deep irony in all of this, of course. After all, it was London I wanted to go to, the only city in the country that has more or less 21st century services (although I’ve lived there too long to have any illusions that the Elizabeth line is a standard respected by everyone else).
There is already immense and growing resentment in the provinces over the way all major transport funding is channeled to the capital. Wait and see what will happen when we decide not to visit it anymore and boycott its box of delights. Trains once sewed the British social fabric together; currently, they are well on their way to shredding it.