Mind the gap: Lake District misconnection sums up what is wrong with our trains
Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.
As a piece of railway choreography, the spectacle is exquisite. As the Avanti West Coast express glides to a halt at platform 2 of Oxenholme station in Cumbria, the doors of the Northern all-stations train to Windermere on the adjacent platform 3 close, in perfect synchronicity.
Oxenholme, if you do not know it, is the rail junction where the spur to England’s largest lake leaves the West Coast Main Line. Many passengers alighting from the express are keen to leave the main line, too, and head for Windermere.
It should involve an easy 10-second walk. But with imperfect timing, from the passengers’ point of view, just as the doors on their arriving train open, the diesel of the Northern departure roars into life and leaves the traveller cursing its red tail-lights.
“Mind the gap,” as the King says in his special coronation weekend message to rail travellers. In this case, the gap is a wait of one hour for the next train to Windermere.
When I witnessed this spectacle on Wednesday, the predictable drama played out: bemused passengers, particularly those from lands where train schedules are designed to connect, tried to make sense of what they had just witnessed: a train whose role is to carry inter-city travellers into the heart of the Lake District had just evaded them all.
This is not a rare occasion of accidental misconnection: it is a deliberate plan that, day in, day out, repeats itself. At 10.21am, the train from London and Birmingham arrives – all being well – at the same instant the train to Windermere departs.
Passengers are told they must wait an hour on the platform (which thankfully has a small and cheerful cafe). With the scheduled journey time thus extended to over three and a half hours, no wonder people opt to take the car: the AA predicts a driving time, station to station, of 50 minutes less. More traffic, fewer rail passengers.
This quotidian spectacle is courtesy of someone, somewhere, who is paid by the taxpayer; the railway is awash with subsidy. I appreciate that scheduling trains is a game of multidimensional chess: passenger trains of different speeds and calling patterns must be woven in with freight trains on a network that struggles to cope at the best of times.
But the branch line to Windermere is an exception. The Northern train trundles to the lakeside station, waits for 16 minutes and returns. Reduce the pause to, say, 10 minutes, and the sum total of travel happiness would rise as passengers from the South and the Midlands connected effortlessly. Instead, the railway industry can offer only baked-in frustration.
There is little that Northern’s regional director, Chris Jackson, can do. It is not a “legal” connection, and therefore the Windermere train cannot be held. Official connections are a different story, he says: “In the event of late-running services on the West Coast Main Line, we have a well-established arrangement whereby our Windermere service can, and will, be held for up to five minutes to enable customers to connect.”
The deliberate morning misconnect will not happen next Friday, 12 May, because no Avanti West Coast trains will run. Train drivers belonging to the Aslef union are walking out on the first of three days of the latest round of national industrial action; 31 May and 3 June are the other no-go dates.
This week I asked the general secretary of Aslef, Mick Whelan, whether train strikes might drag on through the summer. He told me: “I believe so. These are government-led strikes, government-driven strikes, government-organised strikes.”
The government, you will not be amazed to learn, disagrees. A Department for Transport spokesperson called Whelan’s assertions “completely false” and said: “The secretary of state and the rail minister have positively changed the tone and facilitated negotiations, including meeting Mick Whelan on a number of occasions.”
How long until the traveller’s, and the taxpayer’s, patience snaps?
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