On a beautiful Sunday morning in March I planned a hiking trip around London. My guidebook recommended to go Harlington, Bedfordshire, a 50-minute train ride from King’s Cross. After having checked the tube schedule (on weekends, routinely around 1/3 of London tube lines are closed for engineering works) and the train schedule, I set out. Coming out of the tube station, I went for the first ticket machine to buy my ticket to Harlington – no problem. Then I went into King’s Cross station to look for the usual info stand which in big tablets lists all reachable train stations, departure times and end stations. The latter is important, since the electronic info systems are listed by end station. Alas, these tablets did not exist.
On I went – already in a hurry because I was going to miss the train I had checked out on the internet the night before – to the information booth. There, as usual, a long line plus an apple-eating, on-the-phone chatting person, more intent on talking about last night’s football game than serving his customers. After ten minutes it was my turn, the man searched the internet for a long time and then told me that there was no train to Harlington today, because the line had been closed. Asked where I could get my ticket refunded, he pointed me to a nearby ticket booth. There, once more a long line, and when it was my turn, the person told me that since I had not purchased my ticket right there, he could not refund it: I had to go back to the location of my original purchase.
Slightly exasperated I tried to retrace my original steps and after some searching I found my original ticket machine, with a booth attached. There, once more a long computer search, after which the man told me that I was in the wrong train station. My original train would not have left from King’s Cross, but from sister station St. Pancras. He could neither tell me whether my train (which should have left more than ½ hour ago) was running, nor where I could retrieve my money – certainly not from him.
So I sauntered across the street to brand-new St. Pancras (from which also the fast trains leave for Brussels and Paris through the Chunnel), found a ticket counter, but was told that since my ticket was for a train from company X, he could not refund it, because this ticket booth belonged to company Y. But, he told me, I was lucky, because company Y was just around the corner. So I went there, and after another long computer search the lady told me enthusiastically, that there was no need to reimburse me for my ticket, because the line had just reopened – my train to Harlington would leave in 5 minutes. So I chased down long empty corridors, found my platform which was completely deserted. There the electronic billboard listed my original train (which should have left more than 1 hour ago) as cancelled, but a substitute train to leave 35 minutes from now. By this time I was nearly crying, spending all my time in underground train platforms, instead of hiking in the beautiful Bedfordshire countryside, but still decided to wait. 35 minutes went by, the platform began to fill up with other frustrated would-be-travellers, but then – 15 minutes later – lo and behold, a train arrived, which finally took me to Harlington. I arrived there 2 hours after I had planned it. On the train, the conductor once more told me that my ticket was for “the other company” and I would have the choice of getting off at the next stop and wait for “my train” – or I could pay for a universal ticket, 8 GBP extra. Fully resigned, I paid up, wondering why the British Rail privatization of 1993 which resulted in 25 separate companies, had not been able to harmonize tickets for those that run parallel trains on the same line.
And, my little mishap is not the worst effect of rail privatization: delays have increased, fatal accidents nearly doubled, promised investments not materialized – and a number of lines had to be re-nationalized because their private owners had bankrupted them.
Countries planning to privatize their railway systems should look very carefully at the experience of Great Britain.