There was a report the other day which said that the rolling stock on the Great Western Railway (GWR) was upwards of a hundred years old. At least that’s what I think it said. My experiences today suggest to me that some of it is much older than that.
GWR is, of course, the new name for First Group’s railway operation, conceived as it surely was to remind us of the golden age of rail. There is nothing golden about their trains.
In order to travel to deepest, darkest Wiltshire today, we boarded what used to be known as a “sprinter” train, which implies it goes quicker than, say the 10k versions. Having remortgaged our house to buy tickets, we sat down on chairs which made easyJet’s seating arrangements, certainly in terms of leg space, as extremely generous by comparison. With my knees somewhere up by my chest for most of the journey, this was not a pleasant exercise in using so called public transport.
My misery was literally nothing compared to those of a disabled gentleman and his partner who had the misfortune to board the train at Bath. First, he had to wait for the (admittedly excellent, caring) railway staff to provide a small bridge to allow his electronic wheelchair to board said train and then he fought a hopeless battle to try and get near a seat where his partner wanted to use, generously given up by a fellow passenger. (Note to Daily Mail: the world is actually full of lovely people, but you don’t give a toss about that because it’s not the sort of story you run, is it?) But he couldn’t get near it because his wheelchair was too wide to move to the seats from the door. So he had to sit in the area between the two sets of doors. The manoeuvrings seemed to take an age and I felt so sorry for the man in the full knowledge that pity was the last thing he would have wanted. Why do we allow people to be treated in this way?
This geriatric “rattler” train performs a function for GWR. It makes them lots of money, even if the quality of the product is abysmal. It’s noisy, uncomfortable, expensive and demeaning for people of disability. Beyond the bottom line, the company could not care less about its passengers. Luckily, GWR’s staff were truly wonderful and cared for the man all the way to Trowbridge when they helped him get off the train. Once again, fellow passengers were only to pleased to offer help to him. What a state of affairs that they felt the need to do so.
Doubtless, I will be attacked for “political correctness” here for what I say now, but I don’t care. We should not allow trains to operate that do not cater for all passengers. If a gentleman with a motorised wheelchair cannot be accommodated somewhere other than by the door, that train should not be allowed to operate at all. I doubt very much that this man chose to live his life from the confines of a wheelchair so aren’t we, as fellow citizens, obliged to speak on his behalf? This is not good enough.
Using GWR trains really does feel like going back to another time. Given that we put a man on the moon nearly 50 years ago and computers are increasingly taking over the work people used to do, how come we still cannot pull the toilet flush in a train station? Yes, I know why – the urine, excrement, tampons and all the rest of it – all end up on the railway tracks (nice) and the company would rather the waste was dumped en route, but this is 2016, for goodness sake. Is there not someone with the wit and wisdom to design a toilet system for a train that is still in the station? I mean, you can have a dump on the National Express bus without the contents being dumped all over the M4. Can you imagine the outcry if you were driving through mounds of human shit every time you took the old banger out for a spin?
I know that the disabled man story is not quite the same as the train toilet story, but the origins of both come from the same place. The railway companies use elderly cheap and cheerless rolling stock which are unfit for purpose, because they can.
You can bang on all you like about the benefits privatisation may have brought but remember that flogging off the railways was too mad an idea even for Margaret Thatcher. Railways should be a public service, pure and simple. The staff I saw today still represented that principle, as did the ones we saw at Bristol Parkway, assisting a group of very senior citizens from one platform to another. The shareholders of GWR look out for one thing only and that’s the bottom line. Its employees are another story altogether. They have pride in their jobs and pride in their railway and huge respect to them for that.