Article in the Southern Daily Echo of 4/12/2002

Let the train take the blame!

Every day commuters play the price of a rail network which fails to deliver its promises to them. But they are not taking it lying down.

The Basingstoke Uprising has become known as an example of a very modern protest. No violence and mayhem just a showing of good old-fashioned disgruntlement. Ali Kefford reports.

The Basingstoke Uprising may well make the history books for its gutsy show of courage and determination in the face of late-night adversity.

I know the name sounds a bit Tolpuddle Martyrish, like they were a group of disgruntled farm workers, who swarmed around prodding landowners with hay forks.

But it was actually a very modern protest, a rare example of rail passengers breaking the mould and complaining vigorously instead of merely biting their lips and looking bleak.

The scene was (obviously) Basingstoke.

It was the middle of a cold winter night when more than 100 rail passengers, travelling from London to Yeovil, were turfed off their train 70 miles short of their final destination because of a signal failure.

Soon it all got rather ugly.

An enraged crowd marched on rail staff, waving brollies and briefcases.

The heckling was loud and relentless.

Soon the South West Train employees knew they were in trouble so they scampered into an office and locked the door.

One appealed through a window for calm but the stand-off lasted a full 30 tense minutes until taxis were found to take the passengers all the way home.

Now you might think this sort of behaviour which occurred several years ago a bit over the top.

But bad train services touch a nerve like practically nothing else.

And the Basingstoke Uprising is not the only example of customers digging their heels in.

There was, of course, also the now famous Salisbury sit-in.

Here passengers refused to leave their train to take a 100-mile detour via Bristol in order to reach Exeter.

In the end, the rail company and Railtrack were forced to back down and continue the service.

But, all joking aside, rail travellers and especially rail commuters do seem to suffer like no one else in Europe.

I think the most telling trend is that many now take an earlier train than they need to just to ensure they get to their destination on time.

Services can be late. Services can be cancelled.

Infrequent travellers can shrug and put it down to experience.

But for daily commuters the cumulative effect can start to seriously affect their lives.

Some rail users got the hump so badly they formed the South Hampshire Rail Usersí Group.

And their latest report claims frequent delays and truncated services are making passengersí lives a misery.

This service will terminate at . . .

May 27 Ė The 06.03 Weymouth-Waterloo service failed at Winchester. Hundreds of passengers forced to wait for another train.

June 24 Ė The failure of the 06.19 Poole-Waterloo train at Winchester.

June 25 Ė Passengers from the 17.15 Waterloo-Poole had to move from their smoke-filled carriage west of Basingstoke. Conditions were made worse because the air conditioning had failed and no windows could be opened.

July 18 Ė Rear unit of 05.34 Bournemouth-Waterloo caught fire at Southampton.

The South Hampshire Rail Usersí Group is probably every train operatorís worst nightmare.

Its lieutenants travel on practically every commuter service in and out of the capital, meticulously recording if a train is late and by how much.

One of the major movers and shakers in the Group is Denis Fryer, who has been commuting to London from Totton for the past 15 years.

The 58-year-old is so unhappy with the rail service heís received that heís changed his working hours so he only has to travel to London four days a week instead of five.

A determined campaigner, Mr Fryerís goal is to see a service which is value for money for its passengers.

"Quite a few people feed information through to us," he explains.

"The service is never very satisfactory but there are big seasonal variations. Autumn is a bad time because there is heavy rain and itís the leaf-falling season.

"It disrupts peopleís lives. If youíre going to an important business meeting, youíll take a train earlier than the one you need just to make sure you get there on time.

"Even when the service is OK the worrying continues.

"They have standard PR lines for their excuses. A lot of their problems were blamed on Railtrack. Some were Railtrack problems, but not all.

"Things like good customer service donít make a profit. And London commuters donít have much of a choice because of rush hour conditions in London."

South West Trains has had to cough up large fines for late and cancelled services.

It paid £11.5m in performance penalties for the year 2000/2001 and £12.5m for 2001/2002.

But one thing that doesnít seem to be widely known is that rail operators seem to have few physical assets.

According to Mr Fryer they donít own the track, they rent the stations and most of the countryís rolling stock is leased from three companies which are ultimately owned by the banks.

Itís a "virtual railway" which doesnít exist anywhere else in Europe.

Those slam-door, wooden-framed trains are meant to go out of service by the end of 2004.

But Mr Fryer says there are now debates as to whether or not this date is a realistic achievable target.

"I think thereís no doubt that South West Trainsí rolling stock is neglected," he adds.

However he does believe that, following the string of fatal rail crashes in recent years, the condition of the countryís rail infrastructure has improved because it became such a political hot potato.

"But I think South West Trains should lose their franchise. Theyíve had six years and they havenít sorted anything out.

"I think thereís an awful lot of commuters out there looking for other jobs nearer to home.

"If you pay for a train journey, you expect a decent trip. We donít sing the praises of services when they are good because thatís what weíve paid for but we do complain when itís continually bad.

"Thereís a sustained improvement for a few days but then things go wrong again."

But just in case you think Mr Fryer is a mere moaner, well, nothing could be further from the truth.

Get him onto the subject of GNER for example, and he waxes lyrical with a far-away look in his eye.

"Oh theyíre the best operation in Britain. They really look after their passengers."

Heís also a fan of Chiltern and Anglia.

So, Mr Fryer, are you South West Trainís worst nightmare?

"Yes," he replies.

"I think I probably am."