23 SEPTEMBER 1995, Page 54

Not motoring

Sleeping around

Gavin Stamp

Cars represent individual freedom while trains and buses are socialist and collectivist. That, at least, is what purports to be the thinking behind successive Con- servative governments' deep hatred of public transport. The curious thing is that although Mrs Thatcher and her cohorts would not be seen dead on a train, they are quite happy to board an aeroplane. Yet to fly requires a far greater surrender of indi- vidual freedom than any journey on a train, for what could be more collectivist than the total communal subservience to strict rules and to the leadership of a few trained indi- viduals required in the air? Which merely demonstrates that the government assault on public transport is not so much a matter of dogma as of fashion: trains are per- ceived as old-fashioned and common while aeroplanes are modern and glamorous.

Air travel is fast and often best, of course, and I admit rather to enjoying the sensation of flying. Nevertheless, too many flights waste fuel and pollute the air merely to achieve tasks better achieved by train and boat, while so many airports are thor- oughly inconvenient. A few in Britain have good connections by public transport but access to most usually requires an expen- sive taxi ride. And flights seldom take place at convenient times while the very nature of air travel engenders anxiety.

Sometimes I fly from Glasgow to London but I prefer to travel by train. This is because of the journey home. If I am to return by air, I must leave central London soon after 7 p.m. at the latest and there is always a measure of worry about whether the Piccadilly Line will get me to Heathrow in time. But if I am to go back by train, I can have dinner with friends and then stag- ger off to Euston Station at the end of the evening. Far the best way to go is by that most civilised and convenient of con- veyances: the sleeper train (with lounge bar attached).

I have never been on the Fort William sleeper, about which there has been so much welcome publicity this year and which has now been partly reprieved. But what is far less well known is the similarly malicious attempt to damage the principal sleeper connections with Scotland. Until last May two separate trains left Euston shortly before midnight: one bound for Edinburgh, the other for Glasgow. But, since the summer timetable came in, these two trains have been combined as one, which splits in the early morning at Carstairs Junction. This manoeuvre makes no sense in terms of railway working, but is motivated by that abstract system of think- ing which, under Conservative rule, is to govern every aspect of life, (I mean accountancy). For, as I understand it, if two trains travel overnight to Scotland, two fees are paid to Railtrack but only one if the trains are combined.

This is lunacy, of course. More to the point, it is inconvenient to the passenger, sorry, customer. The old trains had, I think, nine sleeping carriages but as a combined 18-carriage train would not fit the platform at Euston, each half of the train now only has six. This, as a steward told me the other night, has meant that many regular Edin- burgh passengers have found it difficult to book a berth. But there is more. Before May, the sleeper trains had a few ordinary carriages with seats, enabling many trav- ellers to Scotland to have a cheap overnight trip. These have been abolished in the cause of shortening the trains and because dividing both carriages and the sleeping cars at Carstairs would be difficult.

When challenged about the withdrawal of this useful and well patronised service, British Rail replied that these poorer pas- sengers can equally well travel by bus.

Yes, they can, but is that desirable? Never mind that pulling a few extra car- riages costs practically nothing, never mind that a bus journey is longer and less pleas- ant, surely we ought to be discouraging yet more use of the motorways and trying to get traffic back on the rails? Such is com- petition in the so-called free market: mere- ly a hypocritical method of discriminating against the railways. Readers may well think I am partisan and obsessed, but what is happening to the sleeper services is yet further proof, if proof were needed, of the destructive malevolence harboured by this Government towards our railway system.