11 JANUARY 1992, Page 15


Joanna Coles found herself

inundated with horror stories about British Rail

LAST AUGUST, regular Spectator readers may recall, I described an outlandish jour- ney I'd experienced on board an InterCity train from Edinburgh to London. Twenty minutes into the journey, I was inexplicably approached by the conductor (or trainman as British Rail now prefers us to call them) and asked to move. When I refused, on the grounds that I'd both paid for and reserved the seat, he went berserk, demanded my home address (which I declined to give) and built up to what in other circumstances I might have found an impressive display of apoplexy.

He then called the police, who boarded at the next stop. The two officers refused to accept my business card as a legal address and asked me to leave the train at Newcas- tle, so they could charge me for obstructing their enquiries. This altercation lasted about ten minutes before I finally gave in. To cap it all, we limped into King's Cross 128 minutes late.

My experience touched a national nerve. Not only did the Sunday Telegraph repro- duce my story, together with a page of

anecdotes of other passengers' misery, but I was inundated with letters of support — well over 100. Many pledged to write to British Rail or the Ministry of Transport on my behalf, several advised me to take legal action. But many had suffered far worse journeys than mine.

Take, for example, the case of Anthony Weaver, director of the Clerkenwell Her- itage Centre. Mr Weaver was on his way to London to take his elderly parents to see Phantom of the Opera — for which he had waited several months to get tickets at some expense. He had to change trains at Nuneaton and, as the train approached the station, he walked through the carriages to the guard's van to get his bicycle. He was stopped by the conductor who asked him to return to his seat. Mr Weaver explained his mission and tried to walk past, whereupon the trainman arrested him for alleged assault and, as they pulled into the station, called the transport police.

Unable to believe what was going on, Mr Weaver, given no opportunity to put his side of the story, was swiftly taken to Nuneaton police station, where he was locked in a cell for three hours. He was then charged with various criminal offences. His parents, meanwhile, were waiting anxiously at King's Cross while the curtain at Her Majesty's Theatre rose and fell.

Subsequently all charges were dropped, his arrest declared unlawful, and Mr Weaver is now seeking damages.

In my own case, after the actual incident, the police were hyper-efficient. No sooner had The Spectator appeared on the news- stands than I received a call from a charm- ing constable at the Police Complaints Authority. He was, he assured me, appalled by what had happened, and two officers would be down from York the following week.

Detective Inspector Livesey and compan- ion spent two and a half hours at my flat laboriously compiling a five-page statement of events. I settled for what is called Infor- mal Resolution, whereby the erring officer is visited by someone from the PCA and informed of the complaint. If he disagrees with it, a full enquiry is launched. I was kept in touch with my complaint's progress, the officer was duly disciplined and he apologised.

British Rail was slower on the uptake. The Sunday Telegraph had contacted them on my behalf and been told that if I lodged an 'official complaint' the matter would be investigated. I wrote to Sir Bob Reid, who replied, return of post, offering me a free first-class ticket and assuring me that 'appropriate action will be taken with the staff concerned'.

When I wrote again, three months later, to enquire as to the result of this 'action', I was assured by Sir Bob that Mr Baptie, the offending conductor, had been 'counselled by his manager'.

No doubt this also reassures one Jean Stead of Edinburgh, from whom I received a postcard. She and her husband encoun- tered Mr Baptie too, after transferring from a broken-down train from King's Cross to Waverley last summer. No sooner were they speeding through the country- side than the new train ploughed into a herd of cows that had strayed on to the track. Despite a five-hour delay, during which shocked passengers doubtless pestered rail staff demanding explanations, Mr Baptie found time to demand that Mr Stead move from the first-class seat into which he had collapsed after finding sec- ond class full — principally with customers from the broken-down train. Claiming exhaustion, Mr Stead refused. Generously, Mr Baptie let the matter pass.

In order not to fall foul of the labyrinthine ticket structure, Keith Diggle, a director of Rhinegold Publishing, thoughtfully told the ticket clerk the spe- cific train he was taking — the 17.16 King's Cross to Peterborough. Once aboard, how- ever, the inspector promptly pronounced the ticket invalid and arrested him. 'He stood by my shoulder and read me my rights, informing me that he was putting me under arrest,' Mr Diggle wrote.

Some time later, the inspector asked his prisoner to accompany him and find a police officer at the next station. Interest- ed to see what would happen, Mr Diggle refused. Amazingly, the bluff worked. The inspector agreed to let Mr Diggle go if he could produce his address. 'I capitulated and offered him a business card. He then stood at my shoulder and "unarrested" me. He uttered a form of words, like a magic spell, which apparently released me.' I cannot mention whatever happened to Carole Stewart of Dunoon; clearly the experience was too shocking to be told. She wrote simply to say that after her last Journey she would not be travelling by train again. And then there was Gillian Mawrey, who complained after a trainman, too busy filling in his pools coupon, declined to help her with train times. When she finally snatched the coupon away from him he retorted: 'If you have man trouble don't bring it in here.' An art historian, Tim Barranger, was taking his new wife to Leeds. When he boarded the train at Ilkley, he explained to the inspector on board that he wanted the cheapest day return. They were going shopping, he explained, and would be back around 6 p.m.

The ticket was duly issued, but when Mr Barranger tried to alight at Leeds, the same inspector told him he could not get off. His surreal explanation was that Mr Barranger had asked for the cheapest tick- et. He could travel there and back but, regrettably, getting off in between was not allowed.

The other passengers, suddenly united by that Dunkirk spirit that British Rail so splendidly inspires, marched the offending trainman to the station-master's office. 'Oh Bernard,' said the station-master, slumping at his desk in despair, 'not again. What have you done now?'

Joanna Coles is arts correspondent of the Guardian.