Newest Review: ... Spa, Banbury, Bicester North and High Wycombe. The journey time is just under two hours. London Marylebone is a small station but ... more
Member Name: davidbuttery
Date: 11/09/01, updated on 11/09/01 (221 review reads)
Advantages: Extremely comfortable, Sensible ticket pricing, Maylebone much more relaxed than Euston
Disadvantages: Mobile-free carriage still not perfect, Snow HIll isn't up to much
Given the current state of the nation's rail network, a railway company that gives a consistently good service ought perhaps to be regarded as bordering on the miraculous. Nevertheless credit should be given where it is due, and that's certainly the case where Chiltern Railways are concerned. They're a relatively small Train Operating Company (TOC), which admittedly gives them an edge over the sprawling networks of such outfits as Virgin, but even so the contrast between Chiltern and many of their competitors is stark.
Competition was always given as one of the main reasons given for privatisation (well, Mr Major could hardly come out with the truth, ie "we're going to get hammered at the next election, so we'd better push this through as part of a scorched-earth policy to make Prescott look stupid and to hell with the public", could he?). Unfortunately, the great majority of routes still have no competition at all, which has led to the worst of all worlds - an inefficient private monopoly. Birmingham to London, though, is one of the few major journeys on which the passenger has a genuine choice. At the top, you have Virgin - when it is working, it's often an excellent service, but its "turn up and go" fares are ludicrously expensive, and there are far too many restrictions on cheap (well, less extortionate) tickets. At the other end of the scale, Silverlink provide a rock-bottom, no-frills service which is certainly cheap - but it's barely above bus levels of comfort. Chiltern have aimed from the start to fill this gap, and it's a task they perform admirably.
Unlike Virgin and Silverlink, which operate from Birmingham New Street to London Euston, Chiltern use a different route, from Snow Hill to Marylebone. Snow Hill, to be frank, is not the most auspicious place to begin a journey - it's a soulless, windswept place, devoid of much in the way of comfort or facilities. The toilets are almost a
lways "temporarily closed due to vandalism", which I fear prefigures a move to that dreadful system used in an increasing number of stations whereby a passenger has to trek back to the ticket office (a long way) to get a key, use the toilet, return the key, and arrive back at the platform just in time to see the train disappear into the distance. The only place to get anything to eat (given that the chocolate machines have languished unmended for months) is a tiny shop, whose staff are friendly and helpful but which closes ridiculously early in the evening. Oh, and despite the (welcome) presence of litter bins, it's normally not all that clean.
On the plus side, though, buying a ticket is a lot more pleasant. Chiltern's conditions are straightforward, something which is very welcome if you have previously spent hours and hours trying to wade through Virgin's close-on impenetrable terms. The general gist of it is that, going from Birmingham to London, you can catch any train from 7:45am onwards; coming back, you can catch any train except the 6:00pm. Simple and sensible. And the prices are sensible, too - a day return including a One Day all-zones Travelcard is £26. I'd guess that spending that with Virgin might get you about as far as the outskirts of Coventry.
An increasing number of Chiltern's trains are "Clubmans" - this means that they have only one class of seating. I never travel First Class anyway, but even those who do shouldn't be upset, as the level of comfort is a revelation for those used to the usual cramped and dirty commuter trains. There is a *lot* of legroom - you won't have to worry about deep vein thrombosis here! - and the armrests are (almost unbelievably for a modern train) well designed. All the 2x2 seats have a decent table on the back of the seat in front, large and sturdy enough to work on, rather than the tiny plastic horrors rail companies normally inflict on you, which is
another welcome touch; and the chairs themselves are far more comfortable than pretty much any in modern trains. (To digress for a moment, it does seem odd that despite all the wonders of modern design, almost any 30-year old loco-hauled stock is more comfortable. Perhaps certain TOCs could try building the interiors out of solid wood rather than flimsy plastic... nah, I'm being silly - why should they want to put public service before profitable sardine-packing?)
An electronic display board in each carriage carries a constant scrolling readout of the stops remaining on the journey, and seems to be very reliable - I've rarely seen a dead one - which contrasts sharply with certain of the other "super wonder new improved" designs, which often either give out completely or display some totally inappropriate message such as "Happy Christmas" (in July!). There are also the traditional voiceover announcements, of course, but even here there is often a discernible trace of pride in the "thank you for travelling with Chiltern" type of comments - something you would never get with many other companies, who snap at you as though you should be really grateful they even bothered to stop for you at all.
The journey itself is usually pretty uneventful, which is exactly how a train journey should be - the ride is smooth, noise is kept ot a minimum, and (wonder of wonders) even the windows are clean! If all trains ran as well as this, there would be a lot less talk of a crisis in Britain's rail network. Chiltern's recent winning of a new 20-year franchise (thank heavens it was won before the Government's idiotic decision to grant only short-term franchises for the foreseeable future) has allowed it to make solid commitments - increasing the number of "Clubman" trains; running through trains to Stourbridge (and possibly even Kidderminster - hooray!); doubling a single-track bottleneck in Oxfordshire - whic
h inspire confidence in its abilities. Now there's something you don't often see said about a TOC.
One innovation that (I regret to say) doesn't really work is the "mobile phone-free" carriage. Too many people are simply too lazy, or too stupid, or very probably both, to bother to read the signs. On one trip not so long ago a young man a couple of seats in front was yattering away about his (extremely boring) work almost the entire way - I was very, very close to doing something I shouldn't have... still, maybe this will be like no smoking signs, which were also widely ignored at first, but seem to have an effect now. And indeed, although I might be imagining it, I do get the very slight impression that the rules are starting to have an effect. One or two quite forceful voiceovers by the guard might have had an effect, though...!
Chiltern's London terminus is Marylebone, which is another point in its favour. The relaxed, civilised atmosphere is a world away from the noise and crowds of Euston, and (I know this is a mean thing to say, but still...) there are a heck of a lot fewer beggars around. You can't get the regional papers, though. On the other hand, there is still a decent range of shops and places to eat - even a little supermarket, though quite why I should want to buy a tin of sweetcorn after my journey I don't quite know. The clinching factor is that, unlike New Street or Euston, the toilets are clean, regularly patrolled, noticeably lacking in discarded needles... and free!
There is no real doubt about it: Chiltern Railways are far and away the best choice for the private traveller who can't book well in advance. If you're going to put the cost on an expenses claim, then by all means take the easy option and go with Sir Beard, but if you (like me) are one who has to dig into your own pocket, then there isn't really a better option. Just don't fill up all the places, eh?
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