The record so far this year was nearly five and a half hours. That one was pure farce. A wait in the wet for a bus from Colchester to Chelmsford, then over two hours on the platform there, being informed constantly that a train was coming, then that it wasn’t. I even got on one and sat for a while before being told it was heading for a siding and I had to get off. When finally a train did get through, I couldn’t get on it because I had obediently gone to wait – along with a few hundred others – on what turned out to be the wrong platform.
That day was, admittedly, exceptional. You can’t really blame the train operator if a truck reverses into a bridge and half-demolishes it. Even if (as I was told) the offending vehicle belongs to the company. But delays involving late or cancelled trains – and eventually buses, taxis and repayments – are anything but exceptional. They’ve become a way of life.
So what is it this time? Signalling failure? Train fault? Over-running engineering works? Broken-down freight train ahead? Passenger incident (whatever misbehaviour or grim personal tragedies may lie behind that vague phrase)? I’ve heard all of those explanations repeatedly over recent months.
Some you can’t easily apportion blame for – though some disgruntled passengers will inevitably try. But you can’t help thinking that one broken-down engine ought not to result in quite so much chaos for quite so long.
And why do these engines break down so often anyway? Are they being properly maintained? The signals don’t seem to be. Which is, of course, the responsibility not of Greater Anglia, whose cross it is to bear, but of Network Rail.
Why on earth are the two things run by separate organisations? Whatever happened to joined-up thinking?
It’s about this time that the muttering in the carriage becomes almost a wail. As if with one voice, we all cry: Bring Back British Rail.
This is now Labour Party policy. If it had been Ed Miliband’s policy, we might now be living under a different government.
Well, maybe not. But long before the election, opinion polls were showing that re-nationalising the railways would be a popular move. Which was perhaps the first sign that people were at last turning away from the insistent propaganda pushing the alleged benefits of private ownership of everything.
The ironic thing is that this particular railway is already part of a nationalised industry. It just doesn’t happen to be this nation that owns it.
Abellio – which along with Greater Anglia runs ScotRail, Merseyrail and bus services in London and Surrey – is owned by the Dutch national railway. Its profits help prop up not the taxpayers of East Anglia but those of Eindhoven and Amsterdam. (Just as those of our “local” energy company go into the French treasury and may one day be siphoned off to China.)
As the East Coast Main Line service demonstrated until it was hived off to Virgin earlier this year, public ownership can work very well.
In principle, I am all in favour of public ownership. Especially of all those things the public really needs. The health service. Water and sewerage. Electricity. Postal services. Schools and universities. Social housing. Transport.
But before we throw all our weight behind the Bring Back British Rail campaign, a word of warning. A word that will instantly conjure up loathing in the hearts of folk now above retirement age. And in the breasts of not a few younger ones too, among railway enthusiasts.
The word is Beeching.
Dr Richard Beeching was the Fat Controller who did for the railways what Joshua’s trumpets did for the walls of Jericho.
As chairman of the British Railways Board from 1961 to 1965, he closed 2,363 stations and more than 6,000 miles of track. In the process he cut off thousands of villages and small towns from access to the public transport network. The devastation he wrought to rural areas such as East Anglia contributed severely to many problems we still face.
It was all – supposedly, at least – about making the railways pay their way. But it’s no coincidence, surely, that he was appointed by a Tory transport minister, Ernest Marples, who made his fortune in the road-building business.
In any decent modern society, rail transport would be available to all – subsidised if necessary. Not made to “pay its way” in competition with roads funded by government. Not closed down to divert traffic onto motorways built by companies the transport minister himself had set up.
Railways are too important to the nation – to the people – to be left in the hands of profit-driven private enterprise.
Unfortunately, they’re not always safe in government hands either.
That’s the problem with nationalised industry of all sorts. You can’t always trust governments not to run them down, flog them off or give them away.