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Back on the rails?
London Midland Trains
Member Name: davidbuttery
London Midland Trains
Advantages: A big improvement over Central Trains, a cheap way to get to London
Disadvantages: Local fares too high, some ancient rolling stock
Living as I do in the west Midlands, London Midland are the people who run most of the trains I use - and since I don't have a car, riding the rails is the only way I can travel long distances unless I can cadge a lift from someone. I noticed the other week that London Midland had come right in the middle of the pack in Passenger Focus's latest satisfaction study of train operating companies, and I think that that was probably a fair result on the whole.
London Midland is really two operations under one name. Firstly, there is the long-distance service from Liverpool to London via Birmingham. This flies under the radar to some extent, which surprises me a little in these cost-conscious times, because there are some excellent fares to be had - and I'm talking about walk-up fares too, not ones you can only get if you book two months in advance and give a secret handshake at the ticket office. If you don't mind travelling at a quiet time of day, you can go from Birmingham to London and back for £17. You can even sit down, if you ask nicely. The catch is that you can only use this ticket on London Midland's own trains, but there are enough of those that it's not an enormous problem.
Now, Virgin would probably point out that their trains were better, which is a point with which I would *partially* agree. Their (electric) Pendolinos are certainly quite a bit faster: London Midland will take anything up to 2 hours and 25 minutes on this trip, whereas Virgin can shave a full hour off that time. On the other hand, the (also electric) Class 350 Desiro trains that London Midland now use are really rather comfortable, and apart from a quite stupidly loud air conditioning system are quite acceptable for a journey of this length. They'll also take you to Liverpool, which Virgin no longer serve!
The other half of London Midland is the one with which I have much more personal experience, and that is the dense network of local services that radiate from Birmingham. Here they operate a mish-mash of trains, some of them very pleasant (the Class 170 Turbostars used on Hereford services, for example) and some of them... well, less pleasant. Into the latter category falls the innovative Parry People Mover used on the very short Stourbridge branch line, which has a truly appalling bumpy ride, worse than any bus, though this isn't helped by the poor state of the track. Also in the "less pleasant" column are the 25-year-old Class 150s that run through my local station. These have 3+2 seating, which is unusual these days and can get very uncomfortable in the rush hour.
And talking of the rush hour, London Midland have now succumbed to temptation and joined some other companies, especially those which operate in and around the capital, in introducing an evening peak period. This applies for trains running to, from or through central Birmingham, which means that a ticket which last year would have cost me around £5 is now more like £7 on weekdays unless I hang around in Birmingham until after six o'clock. I am not terribly pleased by this: I appreciate that overcrowding is a problem, but can't we just for once have a solution that isn't a variation on "Let's put the fares up!"?
I am pleased to say that London Midland still employ guards on their trains, though they seem to be called conductors officially. I'm not a huge fan of driver-only operation as used widely in the south-east: I don't have any particular concerns about safety, but it is nevertheless reassuring to know that there is a second member of staff permanently on board. There are also the usual roving ticket inspectors, though frankly I wish there were more of them as I despise fare dodgers with a passion. A few stations are having automated barriers installed, about which I have mixed feelings (again, I prefer human beings doing the checks).
There hasn't been an enormous amount of new investment visible at stations since London Midland took over, but to be fair to them there has been some. My local station has had a ramp and footbridge installed - although both took massively longer than they should have done to construct - and new signs, electronic and otherwise, have gone up in many places. (Unfortunately London Midland's corporate typeface for station signage - thin white lettering on a black background - is not very easy to read in poor light, and is absolutely not an improvement on the very clear BR-era signs.) There still aren't enough public toilets, though - admittedly hardly a problem confined to the railways.
Reliability and punctuality have certainly improved enormously from the latter days of Central Trains, which by the end of its franchise term really didn't seem terribly interested in running a decent service. My local station now has both the highest patronage and the most frequent services it has ever enjoyed - and it opened in 1852! (The best ever, yes. The glory days before Dr Beeching were not quite the unqualified delight some people - including me - can be tempted to see them as.) The old stock probably does contribute, however, to a slightly less impressive record than I'd really like.
So, some pluses and some minuses, which fits in with what I said up top about the Passenger Focus survey. My local line is due for some new trains in the next year or two, although whether they actually materialise is anyone's guess, and what's going to happen if people hate their design (fewer seats and more standing space) is too. In general, I think London Midland have carved out a decent niche for themselves, and apart from the high fares - which are to a large extent the fault of central government, who now have a lot more control over the railways than I think many people appreciate - I feel they do a reasonable job.
Summary: Not too bad, but not perfect by any means