Thursday, 1 October 2009

Where Trains Run Properly

I arrived yesterday from Hamburg and had a hire car booked to get to a small town called Soest some 120km east of Dusseldorf Airport. For whatever reason there was mix up on the booking with Hertz and in a huff I stormed off to take my business elsewhere.

Having made my point, I suddenly was struck with the problem of how on earth I get to the place from there. I looked at my map and it was clear that a car would have been the best option but crawling back to Hertz or having them know I was going to have to get a car anyway from anywhere would have been their victory. The signs to the airport Bahnhof or train station were far clearer than the signage for the hire car counters if you take the baggage-only exit and it directed to me to the Skytrain. This is the space-age suspended automatic train linking all the terminals and car parks. It is a feature of travel in Germany that all the airports have brand new terminals which are superbly laid out, plenty of security desks, passport controls near the jetways so that queues for everything are far less than in the UK and the surroundings are far nicer.

Skytrain took just 5 minutes to get to the Bahnhof and there I saw the sign for the Reisezentrum or travel centre. I waited my turn with nervous anticipation as a similar experience in Belgium last week resulted in me taking an expensive taxi as the staff were so rude, uncommunicative (I even used my best French) and gave far too little information. The station signage in Brussels is awful too. Not so in Dusseldorf. The middle aged gentleman smiled and I asked, in my best German which is actually English as I failed the O Level badly - twice - understood every word and replied in perfect English. Consulting his computer screen, he told me that the train, direct to Soest and bound for Paderborn would leave in five minutes from the platform he indicated and he was already in the process of printing me a ticket with an itinerary. He asked when I would return and which class I needed and First Class was €75 only €20 more than Second and I could return any time the next day but when he asked me for my flight time he suggested two alternative routes back with times. He printed the whole lot out and it had taken just a couple of minutes. Try that anywhere in England and then trt again using German.

The train arrived perfectly on time and First Class was Spartan but clean and comfortable. I was concerned about if I had got it all right – it seemed too simple. So I asked a pretty German girl, again in English, if this was the right train. She spoke perfect English in reply, glanced at my itinerary and said don’t rely on announcements, just stand at the electric doors at precisely the time it said on the itinerary and then press the button to exit. She guaranteed me that my foot would fall on the terra firma of Soest railway station and she was exactly right.
Having stayed a night at a pleasant hotel Bad Sassendorf, watching Bayern v Juventus and enjoying Schnitzel and beer, I attended my meeting in Soest and asked for a taxi at 11.15 to take me to the station. The driver was waiting for me and I got to the station quickly. I looked at the timetable as I was early and couldn’t see a direct train for a while. The station was under reconstruction and the travel centre was in a portacabin. I went in again asked in English how to get to Dusseldorf Airport. The lady replied in perfect English again and printed me off a new itinerary saying the exact times I would need to catch the trains, which station to change at and which platforms the trains would arrive and leave on. And she was exactly right.

The First Class carriages on all the trains are well advertised, very clean, have power sockets, nice seats and are quiet. These are not UK Intercity class but are regional fast trains for commuters. They are very reasonably priced for the trips too considering I was not buying special or discounted tickets.

I contrast all this to the miserable train network and stations we have at home, where the emphasis in ticket offices is to fleece you and not be helpful at all – God knows they communicate enough badly in English, heaven knows what they are like when someone speaks to them in anything else. The trains do not run to time, you are never sure of platforms, signage is often a moving target and carriages are filthy, poorly ventilated and invariably overcrowded at peak times and there is an emphasis to give you as little information as possible so that the probability is that you will incur penalty fares at some point. Oh, and there are 26 franchises just to confuse you even more – and it is entirely expected that a foreign visitor would have sat an exam to know them all before arriving in the UK and so understood one ticket does not fit all, or even more than one of them.

Of course, the Government would tell us that this is entirely the fault of the Conservatives for their right wing fundamentalism which has got us into this ludicrous state which, if Labour were in power, they would change to make more efficient, cheaper and integrated. The fact is, it takes 12 years to ease your feet under the desk, spout rubbish, get to know how you can personally make money, line up your knighthoods and peerages and after-Ministerial non-executive director careers. Doing something about it is something you might get around to should you be re-elected after the Conservatives have caused all this mess.

Britain remains a joke when it comes to transport and the railways and associated travel is an absolute mess. It has been for so years but someone has had 12 years to devote some time, and money if need be, to have addressed even the basic issues. But that was far too much like hard work. Prescott was far too busy lining his pocket, shagging his secretary, getting freebies from lottery bidders, playing croquet and punching people. And the rest have been no better.

Integrated transport policy? My buttocks.

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