A to B 46 Blog, February 2005 – Wessex Trains

Wessex Trains, Bike-in-a-Bag

Try as they might to look corporate and glossy, privatized railway companies have a fundamental ineptitude that makes them easy targets for mirth. Take for example, Wessex Trains, the scourge of Bogworthy Junction.

When dear grey Mr Major hit on the idea of privatizing the railways, his aim was to turn the clock back to the 1930s, a generally positive era for trains, although hardly a golden one. In those happy days before Hitler and post-war transport planners went and spoilt everything, the railways were split into four large regional companies, each one responsible for railway services and infrastructure: hotels, ferries, buses, a few air services, freight, parcels, pork pies, and so on. The system had its faults, but by and large it made money and provided rather well integrated transport. Had one been fortunate enough to catch a Great Western train from Paddington to Bogworthy Junction, for example, one would have found a Great Western branch line train providing the connection for Little Piddlington and Hampton Gusset. This well proven technique of making trains, buses and other vehicles connect with each other seems alien today, but it provided effortless transfers.

Come privatization, and forces in the Treasury and other departments engineered a rather different arrangement, where a multitude of intercity and regional train operators would contract to run services against each other. This had the transparent objective of making the industry more competitive (ignoring the fact that the railway was already engaged in a cut-throat battle with cars, planes, coaches and indeed bicycles), and the less transparent objective of isolating the minor and regional lines from their wealthier brethren, clearing the way for wholesale closures.

Busy Bogworthy became part of the lame duck Wales & West franchise, running the smaller Great Western lines at a substantial loss, whilst most of the trains actually stopping at Bogworthy were provided by the wealthy (but oddly, not very profitable) First Great Western.

Great Western had been briefed to ignore the local trains and experiment with its own buses, the general understanding being that local services would rapidly fail. Meanwhile,Wales & West was dismembered, the Bogworthy zone becoming part of Wessex Trains, a strange animal, neither clearly private nor state-owned, but heavily subsidised.

The awfulness of the ensuing decade is too frightful to record in detail. Suffice to say trains grew older and less reliable, arcane industry rules became more cumbersome and Byzantine, but traffic volumes grew, putting the creaking regional system under strain. Most Wessex services were now too busy to close, but the extra passengers were only increasing the problems.

In practice, Wessex, like most regional railway companies, has very little say in how and when its trains are run. Take for example the peak summer services from Bogworthy to Budmouth-on-Sea. With the normal two-coach trains often overwhelmed, Wessex decided to lease some ‘proper’ coaches and a pair of wheezing historic diesel locomotives, one at each end. The principle behind sending a train out with two engines – where Brunel et al might have considered one more than sufficient – was to cover for the all too frequent breakdowns, and make the train easier to reverse. Budmouth is blessed with a ‘run-round’ loop from the days when single engines were the norm, but following the absurd break-up of the industry, Wessex staff were no longer allowed to use it.

A to B magazine, Wessex Trains

The mayor of Caster-bridgeshire meets his namesake, withdrawn from service weeks later

Thus, the oil-belching ‘heritage’ train duly rumbled back and forth to a somewhat hit-and-miss schedule until the Strategic Rail Authority or some such body (one is never quite sure) instructed Wessex to withdraw it. Unfortunately, this bombshell arrived after arrangements had been made to name one of the arthritic locomotives ‘Mayor of Casterbridgeshire’. In a wonderfully Doctor Beeching-esque moment, the mayors and other dignitaries had barely digested their chicken vol-au- vent and fromage surprise, before the locomotives and carriages were quietly withdrawn, this less satisfactory twist being the subject of an ongoing news embargo.

One final ‘Santa Special’ was run in December, apparently in defiance of the SRA, but Wessex has no spare rolling stock to handle the 2005 traffic peak, and no clear idea how to get around the problem.

…the dignitaries had barely digested their vol-au-vent before the locomotives and coaches were withdrawn…

One would have more sympathy for the management team, where it not so adept at shooting itself in the corporate foot. At Bogworthy, access to two of the three platforms is by way of a narrow and rather steep footbridge. In theory (and in practice, not so long ago) staff were available from 6.30am to 10pm to assist disabled passengers over a level railway crossing. But under the Wessex regime, morale has fallen to such an extent that staff are frequently absent. When cross-examined about this by a rightly indignant wheelchair-bound visitor, the regional manager suggested proceeding to the next station down the line, and catching another train back. But as even the station cat could have told them, this time-consuming manoeuvre would merely bring the customer back to Platform Three, at the bottom of the same steps.

A to B magazine, Bike-in-a-BagBicycle carriage policy has deteriorated too. Bicycles were already banned on busy commuter trains into major cities, but Wessex tried to extend the ban to cover most of its peak-hour trains, some of which had plenty of space for bikes. After a few months, the company backed down and rescinded the bike ban, then attempted to mitigate this PR disaster by encouraging commuters to purchase a ‘Bike-in-a-Bag’ folding bike. But as even the importers of the machine would have to admit, the Bike-in-a-Bag is hardly designed for daily use, and – more crucially for Wessex – it makes a large and unwieldy folded package on the train.

At Bogworthy, the perfectly adequate cycle racks were secure and undercover on Platform One, but without so much as a by your leave, Wessex decided to scrap them and put new ones ‘somewhere more convenient’. Needless to say, the old racks went, but nothing arrived, leaving no cycle parking at all.

Staff were then told to expect smart new uniforms. When they arrived, they were two sizes too big. Replacements are now lost in the system.

None of this would matter too much if the trains ran on time, but they don’t. A quick survey reveals only 59% running with what one might describe as Brunellian precision – the remainder running up to 36 minutes late.

The general impression is of an industry in deep crisis. Costs and confusion have run out of control, but management has lost the ability to consult, to plan for the future, or make the simplest day-to-day decisions. For regional franchisees like Wessex, even basic procedures, such as clearing a few nettles to make way for a car park extension, can cost thousands of pounds, months of negotiation, and planning on a military scale. This is not entirely the company’s fault, of course – it’s just that the industry is unworkable.

The real tragedy of this gentle rural farce is that the wolves are already gathering at the door. New Labour is no friend of the railway industry and is now so deeply distrusted in the shires that it would have little to lose by backing closure plans. A substantial majority for Labour at the next election could mean a round of rural rail closures, forcing more people onto the roads, just as the twin futurist nightmares of declining oil production and global warming make their presence felt.

…the real tragedy of this gentle rural farce is that the wolves are already at the door.

And why does one suddenly feel tempted to take global meltdown seriously? Rather disturbingly, it seems that Lord Oxburgh, chairman of Shell, is riding a Brompton to work and making apocalyptic predictions about climate change. At home, we are told, he has persuaded his wife and son to ride bicycles too, keeping a 60mpg diesel car in the garage just for ‘trips to the supermarket’. Could he know something we don’t?

But all may not be lost. Younger readers may need reminding that Jim McGurn once ran a cycle publishing empire that over-stretched itself, resulting in ignominious receivership and lost nest-eggs for hundreds of innocent backers.

McGurn went on to pilot a small-scale bicycle try-out concession at the doomed Earth Centre near Doncaster, until that too went into administration on New Year’s Eve 2004. Not Jim’s fault, of course, but one begins to sense a pattern. Our hero now proposes to bounce back with Bikeland, a £33 million Disney-style cycling theme park to be based in Derby.

One hates to be sceptical, but £33 million of lottery money would fund an awful lot of cycle paths, safe Toucan crossings, secure cycle parking, and other practical day-to-day measures to get people out of their cars and onto their bikes. One suspects that if the Lottery Commission is misguided enough to support it, Bikeland will go the same way as all the other grand projects. In any event, it wouldn’t open before 2008.

Scarily, that may be too late.