Twenty Years Ago Today: April Fool, Rail Travellers!

britishrailTwenty years ago today, a momentous step was taken in the history of practical jokes. It was a jape so grand, so vast and so long-lasting that the hilarity of it rings out even today, causing rail travellers throughout the United Kingdom to grimace in exasperation at the wheeze that was pulled on them back in the nineties. To understand this particular joke, it's necessary to explain how things used to be. Once upon a time, if you wanted to make a journey in Britain without spending a fortune on petrol, you went to a quaint old Victorian shack in a run-down part of town that sat alongside a gleaming metal pair of rails. Regardless of how much notice you gave, you bought a ticket at a reasonable price. After a lengthy wait, you boarded a train painted in a dull blue colour that bore a symbol which was unchanged since 1965, and maybe the words "InterCity 125" if it was a really posh service. You found a seat, parked yourself there and waited while the train rolled its way through the countryside at a sedate speed, giving you time to watch the cars on the motorway fuming in their traffic jams. And then when the journey was done, you got out and went on your way, knowing that while the train had been late, the food had been awful, the seats uncomfortable and the rolling stock one step away from a museum, it was still a reasonably reliable system.

April the 1st, 1994 was the day that British Rail was broken up into the units that would later be sold off to the highest bidder: the railway lines that we know today, and the infrastructure in a separate company called Railtrack. Nobody riding the rails on that day would have noticed the comedy begin. The trains stayed the same. The fares stayed the same. The food stayed the same. The staff looked a bit worried and the unions were fuming, but the government promised (while stifling their giggles) that it was all for the best and greater competition would lead to the whole thing costing the taxpayer less. And maybe, just maybe, ticket prices would go down.

Since then, the hilarity has just kept on coming.

The seats on the trains are more comfortable by far - but you'll be lucky if you get a seat at peak times. Or indeed at most other times on some journeys. The food has become edible, but the trolley can hardly get past all the people crowding in the aisles and corridors. The trains have bright, fresh livery that makes trainspotters drool with pleasure and the rest of us wonder why the train companies bother, because they'll only have to paint the trains again when the franchise goes to someone else. The carriages and locomotives are new and powerful, though they hardly ever get the chance to run at full speed and still have to sit motionless outside Birmingham New Street while the passengers stand with aching feet, jammed in beside the swish new toilets from which they can hear every splash and splosh.

And, yes, the fares have gone down - as long as you only want to travel between London and Southend. On every other line, the fares have either remained relatively stable (if the government has forced the companies to keep them that way) or have risen by three times the rate of inflation (if the government has given the train operators free rein). Of course you can get a cheap ticket if you don't mind planning two weeks ahead for every single journey, but how often can you do that? The freedom to go where you want, when you want has been replaced by the freedom for train companies to gouge their passengers at every opportunity.

Nor has it saved the taxpayer any money. The government subsidy for the railways went down after 1994, but only until they realised the companies couldn't operate without it. Since then, it's fluctuated up and down, sometimes more than it was under BR, sometimes less. It didn't help that Railtrack went belly up in 2002 and had to be rescued by the government, causing even more cost to the taxpayer.

But never mind. Even if the joke wasn't remotely funny for anyone actually travelling on the trains, I'm sure that the executives who run all the new companies have been laughing more or less constantly in the last twenty years - all the way to the bank.