02 October 2011

Trains: the British disgrace


The state of the railway system is an area where the English really need to get their head out of their backside and humbly look around for examples to follow. Whatever it is that they’re doing, it’s not working, and even if it is getting slightly better (which is debatable), it is doing so at exorbitant and unacceptable prices.

Some people would tell you that privatising the railway system in 1995 was when it all started going tits up. Fares skyrocketed and private firms started making a fortune almost overnight, even though the government still keeps wasting billions on them to keep the network afloat. A fucked up brand of free market indeed.

Yes, some ultra modern trains did finally appear ten or fifteen years later, but services are constantly disrupted up and down the country with (never-ending) “engineering works” being doled out as the routine formula and –most importantly- travelling by train in England has become completely unaffordable.

And yet, in spite of studies regularly confirming that the cost of railway travel in the UK tops any European league, fares keep going up to levels that are impossible to comprehend anywhere else and, to be honest, impossible to justify were it not for obscene profits being made in some quarters.

The routine excuse that customers can indeed bag a cheap deal as long as they book 25 years in advance, travel off peak, their surname starts with a letter between D and J, and they place their reservation while standing on their left leg, is -to be honest- running a bit thin.

English customers are being taken for a ride and no government will do anything about it even though they will never be able to explain while train fares in the UK are so much more pricey than in the rest of Europe while offering what amounts to a lousy service.

Two things will catch your attention if you decide to invest your savings in railway travelling within the UK.

One is that at least half of your train will consist of first class carriages. The thing is, most of them will be empty. People are generally packed into few second class ones, and more often than not, you may have to enjoy your costly journey standing up or sitting on the floor, generally by the loo.

The other is the infuriating near guarantee that weekend travelling will mean getting on and off trains and replacement buses to finally reach your destination. It’s to do with the “engineering works” we mentioned above.

One could argue that, in being defined by such obscene profits, extreme unaccountability, inefficiency, elitist fares and a neatly-defined class system, the current train network is a very accurate snapshot of today’s UK, but getting into politics is not the scope of this blog.


Out of the many Aspergers-like quotes that came out of Maggie Thatcher's gob, the one about "a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure" would be most appropriate in Italy. Forget the Pope or Catholicism. You won't learn the true meaning of the word "worshipping" unless you set foot in Italy and you look at the Italians' strange obsession with their cars.

Statistics suggest that the country tops the European table of motor vehicle per capita and one just need to go for a stroll (good luck if you don’t want to get run over) to get an idea.

Italians drive literally everywhere. Ask for directions in Italy and witness people's horror when you inform them that, yes, you may actually walk there if it's only going to take 10 minutes. An average Italian would opt for the car with no hesitation.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that public transport in Italy is in such a state. It beggars belief that any Italian transport minister can travel anywhere else in Europe without feeling at least a smidgeon of embarrassment at the state of their own railway network back home.

Trains are overwhelmingly obsolete and dusty, and the filth is just too much to mention. Just to give you an idea, a few years ago, Italian papers were screaming outrage at a flea infestation on national trains. That’s right, a national swarm of itchy critters on the national network. Sure, recent years saw the introduction of some state-of-the-art intercity trains, but these remain few and far between and are also quite expensive.

In addition, while any other country, including England, offer hourly (or even more frequent) services between neighbouring or not so neighbouring cities the concept seems almost totally alien to the Italians. Basically, if you miss a precious train, you’ve had it. Or, if you’re lucky, you may have to endure another five-hour wait or look for a coach, but that too is another interesting chapter.

Whereas more or less every country has caught up with the concept of shuttle services (think, for instance, of the Stansted Express in the UK or the Barcelona Bus linking Girona with Barcelona or any airport with their neighbouring city in Spain), you will be shocked at how poorly served international airports of the likes of Malpensa or Fiumicino are.

And that’s without mentioning punctuality. I will never forget the sight of a train driver and a conductor jovially chatting with a copy of Gazzetta dello Sport in hand. The train was scheduled to depart at 11am and the two kept chinwagging for a good few minutes. In the end the delay was only about ten minutes. But the picture was just unbelievable. Not to mention unthinkable in any other Western European country.

Finally, don’t forget to stamp your ticket before you travel! It doesn’t matter that the precious slip of paper you paid for already sports the date, the time, the exact destination and even the seat you may have booked. If you don’t stamp it (“obliterazione”) before you board the train at one of those machines on the platform, just be aware you may be in for a massive fine. I would love an Italian transport minister to explain what use that is. At the end of the day they don’t need to stamp their tickets in the UK, or in Germany, Spain, Holland, Denmark or mostly anywhere else.

Perhaps those extra fines may be a good source of revenue? Oh the joys of Italian bureaucracy...


No criticism can be levelled at the Spanish railway system. Dare I say, it’s by far the most efficient transport network I’ve experienced in my life and certainly something the Spaniards should be proud of. Trains are clean, incredibly punctual and modern and the tickets are not as expensive as in the UK or even Germany or Italy.

There is a state-owned national railway system called RENFE and also local services in each of the Autonomous Communities.

I must say the local service in Catalonia (FGC, which stands for Ferrocarill de la Generalitat de Catalunya) is the closest to perfection I’ve actually experienced in my life. Aside from serving literally every remote corner of the region, in the many years I was there, I did not experience a single delay, and the trains were always incredibly frequent, clean and with enough seats for everyone.

Short-distance trains operated by RENFE are not as effective, as most Spaniards would tell you, but the service redeems itself when it comes to long-distance connections which are super fast, efficient and reliable. The carriages are nice and spacious, the bar and restaurant area is well organised and serviced and, more generally, it makes it very pleasant to travel by train, even if you’re covering very long stretches (don’t forget Spain is a very fat country).

If you ever have time and money to spare, try the RENFE service called Trenhotel. It doesn’t come cheap, but it’s an excellent way to cover long distance stretches (ie Barcelona- Seville or Oviedo- Zaragoza and so on). You will be booked into a private compartment and will enjoy your own private bed, TV and a mini bathroom complete with shower, towels and toiletries. An excellent way to explore such a beautiful and diverse country.

On a negative note, covering the north of Spain, there is a local service called Feve. Though generally punctual and reliable, be aware that the service scores incredibly poorly in terms of information regarding destinations. Especially if you’re not familiar with the local area or the actual route, you may not be aware what the next stop may be, or indeed if you got on the right train in the first place (by that I mean the total lack of announcements such as “welcome aboard the XXX service calling at X, Y and Z”).

Overall, however, a minor glitch, especially compared to the sorry state of the railway network in other countries.


Similar to Spain, Germany has incredibly thorough local railway network connecting big cities with surrounding commuter towns. Services are frequent, but not always as punctual and reliable as the old stereotype of German reliability would have you believe.

Cities are generally well connected with one another with incredibly frequent services available (Italy, please take note).

The clear fly in the ointment regards the cost. Aside from suburban networks, train journeys in Germany are not at all cheap, in fact not miles away from English levels. Interestingly, Deutsche Bahn was also privatised in 1994, around the same time as the old British Railway.

I don’t know if it was a one-off case, but I should also mention that the one time in my life I travelled first class (there was an offer for a cheap upgrade and I took it), I actually wondered what the second one would have been like.

The train connected Berlin with Hamburg and what was marketed as “first class” looked like any bog standard train anywhere. If anything, a little dirtier and messier, the rubbish from the previous journey obviously not having been collected. Not to mention, Ryanair-style leg room and the total absence of a refreshment service. You’ll be pleased to read, however, that they had the on-board magazine, so I wonder if it was that one perk that justified Deutsche Bahn’s use of the term first class.



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