Robert Hampton

Rover 2006: Epilogue

So, after 6 days of travel on the region's railways, what can be concluded?

Well, first of all, the North West Rover offers amazing value for money, when you consider what I paid (£39.60) compared to the cost of point-to-point tickets. It's a good buy even for non-rail enthusiast; for example, if people just want to use the train for a series of days out.

As ever, one major disincentive to travel by train is the behaviour of some fellow passengers. From loud-mouthed anti-American Scotsmen to mobile phones blaring tinny music out of their speakers, I experienced a fair amount of anti-social behaviour which although not threatening, certainly strained my tolerance.

Lack of passenger information was a problem, certainly on many stations including Preston, Carlisle and Lancaster, where ancient CRT-based displays installed in the 1980s or earlier, were on the verge of giving up. There does seem to be an ongoing programme of replacement with LED-based systems which is to be welcomed. Announcements of delays (if they were announced at all) were rarely followed up with an apology).

However, there is a lot that the privatised railway is getting right. At most stations where I changed trains, there were plenty of staff around. This was particularly true at Virgin-managed stations, but most other major stations had some visible staff presence too. This is an excellent reassurance for the passenger. Most trains had full ticket checks (except in a couple of cases where the train was too full for the guard to get through).

It is heartening to see the railway beginning to embrace modern technology. The excellent National Rail web site (without which I would not have even known of this Rover's existence) proved invaluable for planning the trip. The availability of journey planners and realtime information on WAP phones was useful for those times when I needed to alter my travel plans.

508110 and storm clouds at Hooton

Stormy times ahead?

The railways of the north of England are actually in a healthier state than would be expected, given doom-laden headlines in the railway and popular press. Virgin's Pendolino and Voyager units, although flawed in some respects, have given the railway a new image. The Northern franchise is forever being threatened with service cuts and closures, yet every train (“parly” services excepted) I used was well-loaded, even on rural lines where perhaps this wasn't to be expected.

And therein lies the paradox: it's clear that more and more people want to travel by train; more and more people are travelling by train; but despite that, there doesn't seem to be any will to provide extra capacity where it is needed, on the key local commuter and interurban services. The Government, despite public claims that it wants to see people use public transport, seems hostile to paying for it, regarding trains (and buses, for that matter) as private enterprises which exist to make money first and serve the community second. This thinking needs to be reversed.

Rolling stock shortages are going to become a problem. I avoided travelling on the worst of the peak services, but it is clear that many trains are busy and Northern in particular will need to obtain new stock from somewhere. Cascaded 158s will help, but only in the short term. Northern recently proposed obtaining new “budget” DMUs from a manufacturer in China. The Department for Transport were opposed to the idea, but in my view this is exactly the sort of avenue that should be pursued.

There are also other questions: why are lines such as Ellesmere Port-Helsby and Stockport-Stalybridge allowed to hang on with only a minimal, useless service? In both cases, a useful service could be provided if the will was there. Otherwise, the powers-that-be should do the honest thing and cut these pointless services altogether. On the other hand, there are lines elsewhere which can and should be reopened.

Newspaper headling: THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERYI returned home on Saturday after my last day of roving to find a headline in the Liverpool Echo: “THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY: Liverpool services could be slashed under rail plans”.

Thankfully, it now seems that the “cuts” outlined in the article are not going to be proceeded with. However, everyone with an interest in railways, as an enthusiast, commuter or occasional leisure traveller, must be vigilant and be prepared to stand up for their local rail service, if necessary. The last thing we need is another round of Beeching-style cuts, or even some misjudged tinkering at the edges.

I hope that a few years in the future I will be able to buy another Rail Rover and make the same trip again, and hopefully report on lines which have seen growth and development, rather than running-down and closure. We live in interesting times...

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