Rail delays are a daily fact of life, but Grand Central’s ghost train has set new records. Due to depart from Sunderland last December, it has yet to pass York en route to King’s Cross. I’ve read the timetable — three services a day north and south. I’ve read the BBC travel website, which reports that as far as ‘current disruption and engineering works’ go, Grand Central has ‘no incidents to report’. I’ve heard about the simplified, value-for-money fare structure — including a 50 per cent refund if no seat is available — and the personalised park ’n’ ride service. I’ve received the latest email bulletin from Grand Central managing director Tom Clift, who says jauntily: ‘I absolutely loathe “spin” (unless it’s on a cricket pitch!): I’ve always tried to “tell it as it is”.’ I’ve even read the American-themed dining-car breakfast menu, offering steak and eggs with a Bloody Mary.
It all sounds bloody marvellous, in fact. But is that the ghostly hoot of a distant train I hear? Not yet it isn’t. Tom Clift tells it like it might be: ‘It seems that we should have enough vehicles to start an interim service in mid-November, from which we should be able to ramp up to our full service a month later.’
This is a fascinating parable of just how difficult it is to do anything new and passenger-friendly within Britain’s sclerotic, fragmented, overregulated and ill-serviced rail network. Grand Central’s founders have been negotiating with a succession of regulators for seven years — offering the prospect, for the first time in the modern era, of direct trains to London from Sunderland, Hartlepool and other stations north of York. They were finally granted a licence in January 2006 as an ‘open access’ operator, to run competing services on the East Coast mainline against the principal franchisee, which will shortly be National Express when it takes over from doomed GNER. Indeed, the threat of losing millions in fare revenues to Grand Central was one factor in GNER’s decision — much lamented by regular passengers — to throw in the towel.
Meanwhile, however, Grand Central failed to meet its first start-up deadline last December, and its second one in May, because it could not find any trains. Several deals fell through: first it was going to lease them from Porterbrook, the rolling-stock company best known for making huge fortunes for its post-privatisation owner-managers when they swiftly sold out; then it tried to sub-lease them from Midland Mainline, but the Department of Transport stepped in to veto that option. Finally, six diesel engines and 18 carriages were acquired from somewhere, but the contractors given the task of refurbishing them failed to meet the delivery dates, as contractors so often do. As of this week, only one complete train set had arrived at Grand Central’s yard in the north-east, but a spokesman tells me, ‘We’re hoping to do a full-speed test run to London this weekend.’ Bloody Marys all round when it gets there, but perhaps also a collective sigh of regret for the venture’s ill-chosen marketing slogan: ‘The train you’ve been waiting for.’
My interest in who the next Liberal Democrat leader might be was even more lukewarm than my interest in who will win Strictly Come Dancing now that snooker legend Willie Thorne has been knocked out (of the dancing, that is, not the leadership race). But then I saw a newspaper picture of Lib Dem contender Chris Huhne as a long-haired, wild-eyed undergraduate taking part in a demonstration at Oxford in 1973. He appeared to be wielding a bench as a battering-ram — and if I’m not mistaken, the doors he was about to batter were those of the Examination Schools, and the occasion was the illegal occupation of the building by Balliol-Trotskyite-led demonstrators calling for a ‘central student union’ to break the elitist stranglehold of the Oxford college system as a precursor to world revolution. The picture rang a special bell because if the photographer had panned just a few feet to the left, a couple of ranks behind Huhne, he would have captured another youth whose eyes were burning with rather less certainty: me. Yes, dear reader, barely a month into my first university term, there I was, confused, exhilarated and in the thick of the action. ‘Link arms to avoid arrest, comrades,’ the Trots shouted: so I did, and found myself swept into the Schools alongside Doug Lucie, my college chum who went on to make his name as a fiercely left-wing playwright. It was a moment of epiphany: within an hour I realised that Trots were bonkers and that being dragged out and rusticated wasn’t going to do much good for my future career prospects in the City. So I snuck out between two policemen guarding the battered doors, never to dally with student radicalism again.
But at least my youthful instinct was to get stuck in on the radical side, rather than to join the right-wing school-prefect types who came out against the demo. (I seem to recall the future Tory MP Julian Brazier, in big brown lace-up shoes, running about taking pictures of us, presumably to pass to the authorities.) I still think it’s a good thing for young people to get hot under the collar about bold, world-changing — and these days usually tree-hugging — ideas, if only to work out what’s bonkers about them and eventually set them aside. When I have occasionally lectured to sixth-formers about business ethics or debated with students about Third World debt, I’ve always been perversely disappointed if too many of them agree with me straight away that profit is not immoral, that private enterprise is a more positive force for progress in the world than big government, and that a debt is an obligation on the borrower rather than a stain on the lender. Sound, free-market, libertarian views are best arrived at by mature observation of real life and human nature, leading to considered rejection of unworkable, ultimately less moral, heart-on-sleeve alternatives. Huhne must still only be part-way along that journey or he wouldn’t be a Lib Dem — but he started in the right place, whereas his rival Nick Clegg looks the school-prefect type to me. I’m behind you Chris, or at least I was in 1973.