The protest by train commuters in the West Country is one that will bring a warm smile to the faces of many of their fellow train passengers around the country.
The commuters using the busy Bath-Bristol services were prepared to risk heavy fines this morning by refusing to buy tickets in a demonstration against reduced train services. The More Trains Less Strain (MTLS) group anticipated that hundreds travelling on First Great Western services would refuse to pay.
If challenged by inspectors, they would present alternative “fare strike” tickets provided by MTLS (http://www.guardian.co.uk/transport/Story/0,,1996050,00.html).
The protest is in response to reduced timetables which has meant most services have been standing room only and some passengers have simply been unable to board overcrowded trains. It also comes after the UK’s most senior rail civil servant claimed people paying £5,000 for a season ticket should tolerate standing for 30-minute journeys.
As a result of the Bath-Bristol protest, First Great Western claimed the problems have been caused by a backlog of maintenance work, but this has now been sorted out. The operator said it viewed today’s protest “with sympathy” but warned protesters without tickets that they risked a fine of up to £1,000 or even three months’ in prison.
I can only applaud those commuters who took part in the protest.
I fear, however, that it will take an awful lot more to bring about even a modicum of improvements to our rail network.
As a regular commuter I consider myself quite fortunate. The trains that operate the Cross-City line in Birmingham tend to be clean, punctual and provide a welcome alternative to driving into the city centre – a road rage magnet even on the quietest of days.
There are some irritants with Central’s services – one of the most annoying being the televisions that someone clearly thought would be a good idea. But the odd 10-minute delay can be shrugged away, especially when you consider conditions and services operating on other commuter lines around the country.
But still there are improvements which could be made. The big question is whether they will ever take place?
We are being urged to ditch our cars for public transport and yet conditions and services such as those endured by the Bath-Bristol commuters are deemed to be acceptable and par for the course. There tends to be a “like it or lump it” attitude, typified by the comment that even if you pay £5,000 a year for a season ticket, you shouldn’t expect anything so quaint and misguided as value for money.
We are constantly being told we must change our attitude to issues such as transport for the sake of the planet and to ease our grid-locked towns and city centres.
But I would argue that the attitudes of those providing public transport also needs to change in order to make such services a viable, attractive and realistic alternative to the average motorist.
The Bath-Bristol protest has served to highlight the gulf that exists between passengers’ expectations and operators’ commitment.