In Britain, tracks of their fears


Trains: Mindful of the country's proud railroad history, British leaders take a good look at reining in the faltering industry.

January 20, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Georgians created them, Victorians expanded them and the Windsors still ride them.

Over the years, they've been nationalized and privatized, lauded and vilified.

They are Britain's railroads - engine of the Industrial Revolution, symbol of old empire, and reminder of the country's once-vaunted engineering know-how.

Yet all too often in the past few years, Britain's railroads have been beset by dirt, debt and delays - and a dose of danger.

The British invented modern railroads, but they don't seem to run them well any longer. The country's hard-pressed commuters have been burdened this winter with fare increases, service interruptions and pesky strikes that have brought swaths of the country to a rush-hour standstill.

"We have the worst railways in Europe," Britain's minister for Europe, Peter Hain, recently blurted out during an interview with The Spectator magazine.

Just how bad is the reputation of British trains?

When British filmmaker Ken Loach's documentary The Navigators was aired on television in Britain, it was viewed here as a realistic portrayal of the state of the rails.

But in France, where it was shown in theaters, it was billed as a farce.

While French and Germans zoom along the countryside in fleet, sleek trains run by state-owned companies, Britons are often stuck in decades-old rolling stock that trundles through dank tunnels and over narrow bridges, some built in the Victorian age. In this country, trains are delayed by "leaves on the lines," and traveling by rail on a Sunday often means finishing the trip on a bus.

In the mid-1990s, during the final years of the Conservative government, Britain broke up state-run British Rail and sold the tracks to one company. The routes went to 25 other companies, which would run the trains. The aim of the privatization was to draw new investment and improve services.

Instead, the financially troubled company that oversees the tracks, Railtrack, is under the control of government-appointed administrators. Many of the firms running individual lines are losing money. And service has deteriorated, with only 79 percent of trains running on time last year.

Moreover, British trains, whether deserved or not, earned a reputation for being unsafe after several deadly crashes, including a 1999 accident that left 31 dead at Ladbroke Grove in London.

Amid the chaos, commuters have to be armed with patience.

"I can't think of anything right about the trains, although sometimes they actually do arrive at their destination," says Julie Chewter, a lawyer from Tonbridge in London's suburbs. "The trains are filthy and expensive."

Jonathan Vipond, a designer, suggests that "we could run the trains like the rest of our European cousins."

"In Germany, they run a train service to the Alps," he says. "Here, the trains break down in the rain."

Paul Turner, a 38-year-old antiques restorer, says the trains aren't bad; he always manages to find a seat for the 70-mile, 1-hour-and-45-minute morning journey from Folkestone to London.

To do so, he rises by 4 a.m. and catches a train before sunrise.

But he has a complaint.

"We're the fourth-richest country in the world," he says, "and we can't run a train with a decent toilet."

For decades, even centuries, the British have had a love-hate relationship with their railroads.

"You read Dickens and Trollope, and they marvel about how you could run around the country at high speed, but they also write about how awful the service could be," says Andrew Scott, head of the National Railway Museum in York.

Yet the British have a soft spot for trains, a sentiment seen in such things as tracks devoted to renovated steam engines or legions of "trainspotters," who hang around railway stations recording the numbers of the engines that roll by.

The train continues to be a favored mode of transportation for Britain's royal family, who can call on a royal train to travel the countryside.

And despite all the present problems, trains are still considered romantic. It was a quaint railroad station that served as the backdrop for the famous tear-jerker Brief Encounter. There was even something romantic about Britain's 1963 Great Train Robbery, in which 15 armed robbers looted a mail train.

But griping about the trains is part of the British character, too.

"There is this deep-seated feeling in British folk that the railways ought to be running properly, preferably each train being no more than 10 seconds late," Scott says. "Planes and cars can be late, but trains aren't allowed to be late."

Britain's first public railroad, powered by horses, opened in 1803 and linked Wandsworth and Croydon in London. But it was the creation of steam locomotives that enabled trains to move the masses and move products - and triggered the 19th-century boom in railroads.

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