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The fall and rise of Britain’s railways: Why passengers are still unhappy, and a taste of Brexit to come

Britain’s best connected railway station? London St Pancras is in with a shout, since it dispatches passengers to exotic destinations, far and near: Marseille and Margate, Lille and Loughborough, Paris Nord and Penge East …

In terms of sheer number and diversity of destinations, though, Birmingham New Street is surely the clear winner — and the only location outside London to make the top 10 of Britain’s busiest stations.

The fortunes of the nation’s railways, and long-suffering passengers, are reflected in the city of Birmingham.

The first railway to the city arrived from Warrington 180 years ago. A year later, the first connection with London opened. And it was half a century ago that the line from Euston was electrified. But in the same year, 1967, the Paddington-Birmingham-Birkenhead express was withdrawn as part of the dismantling of much of the network prescribed by Lord Beeching and implemented by both Labour and Conservative governments.

Four decades ago, when the nation’s railways seemed to be heading for the buffers, Snow Hill station was demolished.

Yet it has risen again, and along with Moor Street is an important hub for the city. And as evidence of how rail has returned to the heart of the nation, the first stage of the High Speed 2 line from London is due to arrive within a decade at Curzon Street station, terminus for the first trains from London in 1838.

You can travel direct from the rejuvenated hub of the UK rail network to hundreds of stations, as far apart as Cornwall, the Cambrian coast of Wales and Edinburgh, via either the East Coast or the West Coast main lines. Which helped make Birmingham the obvious location for the first annual conference of the Rail Delivery Group, the body that brings passenger train and freight operators together with Network Rail.

The audience at the event on Tuesday heard some painful truths: “Our railway is an extraordinary success, yet passengers are not happy with the service we give them. We have to make better use of the infrastructure.” That’s according to Mark Carne, who, as chief executive of Network Rail, is in a good position to do something about it. He’s the man in charge of the tracks — and extracting more from the most heavily used railway in Europe.

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Clare Gilmartin, chief executive of Trainline, warned that the bar for satisfying British consumers is constantly rising: “Customer expectations are being raised by the likes of Amazon and Uber.”

And Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus, reminded the delegates that talking about constraints and aspirations was all very well, but: “Passengers aren’t interested in your problems. They’re not catching a vision, they’re catching a train.”

After the conference I caught the 4.10pm train (or was it a vision?) to London, and next morning set off in an equal and opposite direction for the Airlines for Europe conference in Brussels — which brings together, very temporarily, the bosses of easyJet, Ryanair, Air France, Lufthansa and IAG (the holding company of British Airways).

The location was ironic, given that railways have rendered air links from the three nearest major cities — Amsterdam, Paris and London — almost extinct.

Coming home, UK passport control is normally carried out at Brussels Midi station, a handy state of affairs because it means there is no queue on arrival back at St Pancras. But since a loophole potentially allowing unchecked travellers to reach the UK was exposed, passengers on the 5.56pm departure undergo what I suppose is the European version of “extreme vetting”.

The British official in Brussels checks your passport and your ticket, then gives you a slip of paper with your name and passport number written in, together with an official stamp. A transit visa for the Channel Tunnel, I call it. And at St Pancras, you queue up again, for another passport check in which the slip is checked and collected. Is this a taste of Brexit to come?

Read more at independent.co.uk

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