Christmas in Prison

I’m only actually writing this post to give myself a break, OK? Usually I dislike blog posts that are just whinges, but I’m wound up about this. I may try and justify it with some cutting analysis at the end, but don’t hold your breath.

I have been trying to book a train ticket home for Christmas, and at three weeks’ distance ought to be picking about the right time: far enough in advance for there still to be seats, but close enough for the timetables and everything to be in place.

Well, this is true up to a point: I have certainly been able to explore, at length, the various closures for maintenance that are taking place around Christmas and the new year holiday. Now, if we’re going to have closures for maintenance, I actually agree that they should be over holiday periods: it’s uncomfortable for those of us trying to travel, but it’s better than inconveniencing the people who rely on the railways to get to and from work and earn their living.For much the same reason,s it drives me nuts that express trains are prioritised in timetabling and signalling over local commuter trains: passengers on the former are far less likely to be making regular or essential journeys, but because they pay more money, they are afforded the priority. That’s what you get it you try running public services like railways for profit instead of as public services. But likewise, I think the premise “if we’re going to have closures for maintenance” is also a false one: if the railways were being run properly as a public service, maintenance would not be done in such appallingly inconvenient globs, even if they are considerably cheaper.

And I haven’t even started on the main blast yet, have I? Here’s the trouble: seat reservations are, apparently, not available yet. If I want to book a seat – and on December 23rd, you can guarantee that if I don’t have a seat booked, I won’t get to sit down at any point on the whole journey – I’ll have to come back later. So I probably have a window of about two days, opening I know not when, in which I will be able to book a seat. This is on top of already having to compromise my journey heavily in order to accommodate the aforementioned maintenance closures. On account of these, I am having to stop at home for a couple of days longer than I would like simply in order to avoid a 6 hour journey via Birmingham, Reading and God knows where else.

So the bottom line is: endless palaver simply in order to meet familial obligations that, I suspect, are unlikely to be much fun anyway. I’m going to try a few more journey combinations in a minute, but I needed a respite from the Virgin trains website before doing so. On the subject of that online establishment, its most galling aspect – beating off stiff competition from some extremely poor navigation – is a message stating “User Error” when it goes wrong. Er, no – the user is perfectly correct, actually – it’s YOUR error! Would someone face to face on a platform tell a customer that it’s their error? I think not.

So, promised analysis: well, if you try to run railways for profit you end up inconveniencing the people who rely on them,and they cease to be run as a public service. But this isn’t necessarily an argument in favour of renationalisation: after all, there is no a priori reason why the assets themselves have to be in public hands. But the railways must be run by one body – the attempt to introduce “competition” into the system has produced bizarre market distortions, deteriorating services and massive inefficiencies, not least entire fleets of trains stood idle on sidings because different Train Operating Companies keep ordering shiny new ones without any obligation to consider using perfectly good trains that already exist. To say nothing of endless re-branding, increased need for track maintenance on account of trains being ordered that are heavier than the ones they replaced and wear the track out more quickly, enormous price rises for the aforementioned deteriorating service and hopeless overcrowding when the new trains are – oops! – half the length of the old ones. And who pays for this idiotic shrine to inefficiency? The taxpayer, or the customer – whichever way you dice it, we do.

Oh, and did I mention I don’t even like Chsitmas very much?

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