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Little Western, or too little and too late

November 23, 2007

I took the train up to London this morning from Pewsey on a Great Western service (the title of this blog should therefore give you an indicator that I am not happy). This is normally a good service and runs on time Luckily this morning the train was 15 minutes late: I had been delayed by having to deal with the consequences of an early morning mother-daughter conflict so this was a prayer answered.

Pewsey is a small station. Trevor who more or less runs the place is someone all the regulars know by name and he is very helpful. Its a pretty station in an area of outstanding natural beauty so on a frosty November morning with a clear sky, both the station and my drive to it through the West Woods is a delight. The sudden appearance of a ticket machine however bodes ill for continuation of personal service. In addition Great Western have started to modernise their trains.
Now it used to be that the trains had several seats with tables where I could settle down with the Powerbook (or in the days of my ignorance the IBM Thinkpad) and get a solid hour of work done. The absence of power in the seats was an issue on longer journeys and a constant frustration so it was far from perfect, but for an hour at the start of day with a full battery it was fine. The much decried (unfairly I think) Virgin Rail had power in all seats from day one and a better seat reservation service. They saw themselves as orientated towards the computer generation (it’s not just business people who use computers on trains after all). Great Northern have power in all seats, and they have carriages with WiFi which is even better. Great Western, despite naming themselves for the Victorian Entrepreneur Brunel, lagging behind.

I sort of assumed that the modernisation would correct this. But regrettably it has not. From eight tables per carriage we are now down to four which creates an unseemly rush to grab one. The other seats have a drop down shelf that is not big enough for a lap top. The four tables do have power, but the socket is arranged not under the table (as in Virgin and Great Northern) but just above the top. This means that space is taken up with a socket (UK sockets being larger than anywhere else in the world for no good reason) and the closeness to the table means that my Powerbook adapter will not fit. So in effect the service has got worse not better. Oh, and needless to say there is no WiFi on the train and coverage of hotspots at the stations is limited.

One wonders how this sort of mess could happen. Looking round the carriage it seems that no one really thought from the perspective of a user of the service. It looks like the design brief was to fit in more seats, oh and if you can chuck in a couple of power sockets. Indifference rather than making a difference.

Of course the price is also a nonsense. This week I got back from Vancouver midday on Wednesday and needed to get down to Cardiff that night, onto Bridgend for a great seminar organised by DNA Wales the next day, then home. A day trip to London today, a return to Cardiff on Saturday to see Wales play South Africa and then to Heathrow on Sunday evening for the plane to Brazil to start a round the world trip that will take in New Zealand, Australia and Singapore. All of that would be best to handle on public transport (i.e the train). However the total cost would have been around £300. Hiring a small car at Heathrow airport and taking the train to London today cost a total of £150 but with a much bigger carbon footprint. I am just costing a trip up to Leeds when I get back, and again it looks like hiring a car (unless I book two weeks in advance and commit to a specific train) will be cheaper.

In France, or Italy, or Germany I could do all this faster, cheaper and better on the train. In Britain the pricing, timetables and services seem designed to drive us all to roads, more stress, more pollution, most cost to society. It even applies to the new Eurostar between London and Paris. It’s cheaper to fly, or drive down to Dover, get a ferry and then pick up a train from Calais. It is all a nonsense, and demonstrates the lack of any integrated transport policy. The issue of tables and power sockets on Little Western is symptomatic of a wider malaise.

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