IN the last couple of weeks I’ve managed to travel all the way from Doncaster to Saint Raphael-Valescure in the South of France by train – and back again – without a hitch. And yet a simple trip from Yorkshire to London now sounds like it could be in jeopardy thanks to yet more ineptitude.
We set off from Doncaster to King’s Cross, then took the Eurostar to Paris. After two nights in the French capital, we headed to Marseille on a TGV high-speed train. From here it was the TER (Transport Express Regional) to Saint Raphael-Valescure, where we boarded a bus for Port Grimaud to finish our French adventure in the Gulf of Saint-Tropez.
As far as I could deduce, the TER is like a French equivalent of Northern, only with double-decker trains (on our commuter-time return journey, at least) and a conductor who walks through the train as it sets off saying a cheery bonjour to all the passengers.
Can you just imagine this on your typical delayed Northern service from Leeds to York? He would require a protective helmet and armour.
Sorry if you’re reading this stuck somewhere just outside Sherburn-in-Elmet, but can I just say that not one of the eight trains we travelled on in eight days was either late or cancelled. Perhaps we were just lucky, but this was train travel the way it should be. And all for the cost of less than a six-month season ticket between Sheffield and Leeds, which starts at £1,382.40.
Two adults, a teenager and a 12-year-old did this entire cross-continental return journey thanks to very reasonable Interrail tickets. With mandatory Eurostar and TGV reservations, the whole trip cost around £1,000. Given you’re unlikely to have much change out of £400 for four return tickets from Doncaster to London alone unless you book months in advance, this has to represent a bargain.
And now I’ve come back from holiday to discover that I might not even be able to take advantage of high-speed travel from London to Yorkshire on the new environmentally-friendly Azuma trains on the East Coast Main Line because the trains do not work properly with the track. It’s reported that the rolling stock causes electromagnetic interference to older signals and points north of Colton Junction near York.
This means that these new electro-diesel trains will only be able to run on diesel and will therefore have to go rather slower than anticipated. Inevitably, operator Network Rail is blaming the Japanese train manufacturer Hitachi. And Hitachi, which is building the new trains at Newton Aycliffe in County Durham, is blaming Network Rail for failing to update 30-year-old signalling systems so the trains can actually use the lines they have been designed for.
And the response of Transport Chris Grayling, whose overall responsibility this is? He says that it’s just “teething problems”. You might have hoped someone would have thought to match up the trains to the rails over the past decade?
Not so. Former Transport Secretary Lord Adonis told this newspaper: “I ordered these trains 10 years ago and it is incredible that in this time they have not sorted out power issues so they can run properly. This is yet another failure by Chris Grayling and his Transport department, for which travellers in Yorkshire and the North are paying dear.”
Yes, and in more ways than one. And we think we can compete with Europe on an equal footing? How can a post-Brexit UK stand proud in the world when its public transport system is not so much rolling stock, but laughing stock? And how can the North of England play its full and meaningful part in the economic development of the country if the basics are lacking?
I’m not completely blinded by the efficiency we enjoyed on French trains. I understand that the state-owned SNCF has had its own issues with engines, carriages and infrastructure not matching up in the past. And of course, the French railway unions are renowned for their notoriously hot-headed approach to industrial relations.
However, as we travelled all those thousands of miles on public transport, I kept thinking about how the French can get it so right when we consistently get it so wrong. This was as true on the Parisian metro, with trains at every station within two or three minutes, as it was on the bus from Port Grimaud to Saint-Valescure at 7am carrying students, tourists, businessmen people, pensioners and families to their destinations.
As I stared out of the window at the fields of Flanders on the way home – we took the Eurostar at Lille – I could only conclude that France is a far more democratic place than the United Kingdom. Its people expect certain things and in turn they are provided with them. In our country, anything the public requires is doled out grudgingly, carved up and turned into a profiteering scheme. I’d stop short at revolution, but it’s time things changed.