WHEN Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot he might have been anticipating the plight of anyone who had the temerity to place their faith in the North of England’s rail system.
You wait. And wait. And nothing really changes. And if you pluck up the resolve to pursue a claim for compensation against the train operator, you are overwhelmed by the kind of despair that Beckett was so skilled at articulating.
You lose time and money, but nobody is held to account. Even when the train fails to appear, passengers are still taken for a ride. After having my blood pressure tested by being forced to place my faith in rail firm Northern during the working week, I shouldn’t have been surprised to encounter incompetence on what should have been a carefree trip to the seaside.
Much has been written about the damaging impact the dysfunctional rail system is having on the North’s cities. But places like Scarborough – at the very end of the sluggish trans-Pennine network – are also paying a heavy price. For a few days every year, cricket lovers from around the world beat a path to Scarborough when, to almost quote the great JM Kilburn, county cricket goes on holiday.
It’s hard to overstate the positive impact that Scarborough cricket has on perceptions of Yorkshire. Wander among the crowd and you soon rub shoulders with visitors who are paying their first visit to the county. They ought to take away an overwhelmingly positive impression. On a scorching summer’s day, there is nowhere in the world that outclasses Scarborough as a sporting venue.
All you need is an effective mechanism to carry travellers in and out of the town centre. So, on a day when an additional 5,000 visitors were expected to arrive on the coast, what should bosses have done? Providing larger trains might have been a start. After being crammed sardine-like into the in-bound train, we had hoped that the journey home would not prove to be such a test for our patience and stamina.
You can predict the outcome. On a day which a member of staff described as a “disaster” for the credibility of the rail network, a journey home to Ilkley took about the same length of time as a trans-Atlantic flight.
In the evening, two Trans-Pennine Express trains were cancelled from Scarborough to Manchester, which meant that three trainloads of passengers had to be crammed into one service, which also ran late. These failings were timed perfectly to coincide with thousands of visitors leaving a cricket match.
A portent of what was to come had been served up by a waitress at a Scarborough restaurant earlier in the day. “You’re taking the train home?” she said, her face full of pity. “Good luck...”
Every delay and cancellation carries hundreds of stories. I bristle with anger when I remember the worried mother with a young child who despaired of ever getting home that night. I still feel rage when I picture the elderly couple, who appeared tired and on the brink of fainting, edging closer to the edge of the platform because they were worried they would not find a place on the delayed train.
I felt sorry for the staff, who were blameless and helpful. But many people on that service will have quietly resolved never to take the Scarborough train again. This might not mean a great deal to officials in Whitehall. But the collapse in confidence in the rail system causes lasting economic harm to Yorkshire’s coast.
Employers, including Sirius Minerals, the company behind a mining project that represents one of the biggest private sector investments in the North of England, have long demanded improvements in the frequency of trains to the Yorkshire coast.
Scarborough is not just a tourist destination. It is a manufacturing hub, with firms the nation will rely on to drive economic growth after Brexit. If their skilled staff can’t get to work, our economy will be shunted into the sidings.
Two-and-a-half months ago, I had the misfortune of boarding a London to Leeds train that seemed to enter a patch of warped spacetime when it left the platform. It felt like a messenger on horseback was acting as pacemaker. After making its leisurely way North, the passengers were told they could apply for a full refund.
The cash, or even an acknowledgement that I’ve got a legitimate claim, is yet to arrive.
In some places, the timetable has become almost meaningless. You can, of course, simply hop in the car and add to the environmental damage and decline in air quality, which will pose a lethal threat to asthma sufferers everywhere.
The price of today’s train chaos will be paid by those who die from respiratory diseases because we were forced to head out onto overburdened roads.
It is why failure to fix this broken system will prove a fatal oversight, many times over.
greg Wright is deputy business editor of The Yorkshire Post.