Train Travel – and a defence of faith schools

To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, but he might have changed his mind had he caught the London-Edinburgh sleeper last week. A six-hour delay was compounded by the behaviour of one guard who positively delighted in shouting passengers awake and hurling them off the train at Crewe - without telling them the train we were on would be heading north a little later anyway.

My husband explained I had a migraine and the guard immediately threatened to get security to chuck us off, although his colleague had given us permission to stay put.
Delays happen with all kinds of transport, but contrast our experience with the caring service generally offered by air stewards. Buying berths earlier, I queued at Kings Cross only to be accused of being a potential fraudster as I did not have our train tickets. So I called ScotRail on my mobile, bought the berths by phone and picked up tickets from the station machine.

On the way down on a rainy Sunday night in Berwick, a 10-minute delay while our train was being cleaned was announced in such doom-laden tones many doubted the train was coming at all. Sadly, this unsatisfactory service is not untypical as letters to The Herald recently bear witness. What is going on with the platform roulette commuters are forced to play at Glasgow’s Queen Street? That happens sometimes in Edinburgh, too, where
bewildered tourists struggle to find well-hidden platform 21 when the platform announcement is made minutes before the train leaves. The losers who arrive too late are yelled at by surly guards to stand clear.

Perth station is a major interchange point, where hundreds of people from Aberdeen, Inverness, Edinburgh and Glasgow are daily disgorged on to draughty platforms where they have to walk to find the information boards and then drag suitcases over footbridges to find their connections, which rarely depart from adjacent platforms. Those travelling with bikes or heavy bags get no help.

Scotland can surely do better than this. We need to be much more ambitious for our rail network. The roads are full and can only get slower; air travel is a cumbersome and polluting way to move people around.

Yet it feels as if the powers-that-be have given up on rail, grudgingly giving it only enough to maintain the status quo and letting it gradually wither away. Morale is low and so is investment. It is a national disgrace that the train journey to the central belt from Inverness still takes more than three hours because there is still only a single track with passing

Imagine for a moment that there was a fast, frequent service from Inverness to Glasgow and Edinburgh, taking two hours 45 minutes, with comfortable rolling stock, like Virgin has introduced on routes into England, and plenty of clean toilets, room for bikes and

That would certainly help to get people off the A9 – in both directions.

Renting cars is getting ever cheaper so holidaymakers bound for the Highlands might also get on a train instead of jamming Glen Coe from June to September.

What investment is going into rail at the moment is earmarked for airport rail links. Surely before we think about better linking Scotland’s central belt to the wider world, we should think about those living outside the Edinburgh-Glasgow corridor?

ScotRail is rightly proud of the 15-minute-frequency shuttle between Edinburgh and Glasgow which has helped to increase passenger numbers. But it appears that the extra fare money will only be used to reduce the subsidy, and not be put towards investment.

This is bad news. Network Rail, a replacement for Railtrack, must provide more investment for Scotland. In principle, rail still has a lot going for it. The dining car celebrated its 125th anniversary yesterday and, at its best, rail travel is a pleasant, quick and efficient form of transport. The sleeper service, which still carries a guard’s van, won recommendations from a cycling magazine recently as it means travellers can dine in Europe’s biggest city and breakfast in its last great wilderness, bike and backpack safely stowed. One day, let us dare to hope that Scots will be able to board a train in Inverness or Fort William in
the evening, dine, sleep and wake up in Paris or Brussels. Now that idea would have pleased RLS.

Scotland sees itself as a tolerant country but how different are people allowed to be? The Green Party’s quasi-communist attack on faith schools showed how the ideal of multi-culturalism is retreating. The Greens appear to believe that state education should mean education by the state, in which children are inculcated with the idea that no faith is right or central but all are equivalent. Currently in Scotland’s successful Catholic schools, most of
the staff are singing from the same hymn sheet. They create a space in which children are free to grow up within a creed. The money which funds these schools does not come from the state itself but is raised in taxation, partly from the Catholic community. Muslims should have the same opportunity to educate their children as they wish.

The Scottish Herald
November 3rd 2004