An Australian rail network raises awkward questions for Michael Portillo

Choo, choo: a train at Metford, New South Wales. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The recent news that rail fares are due to increase yet again has once again raised questions about whether the rail network in the UK should be taken back into public ownership. When John McDonnell announced earlier this year that Labour would consider reviving British Rail in order to bring “full integration” to the rail network, there was much speculation as to what this might look like in practice, and whether it was a good idea.

Jonathan Cowie of the Independent was not alone in expressing caution about a rush to nationalisation, suggesting that a re-evaluation of the existing franchise system might be preferable. Yet we do not have to search for long to find state-owned systems that offer preferable solutions to our current system.

One such system is that operated in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, which, later this year, will feature in the latest series of Michael Portillo's Great Railway Journeys. One of the biggest criticisms of the rail network in NSW is that its infrastructure is outdated, meaning travel times are slow enough to make air travel the preferred option. In spite of this fault, however, the gulf in ticket prices between NSW and Britain is sufficient to raise awkward questions for those who defend our privatised system.

By way of illustration, a journey from Sheffield Midland Station to London St. Pancras via Chesterfield and Derby takes roughly two hours, getting you there in relative speed and comfort. The only drawback is the cost. If you aren't able to plan your schedule weeks in advance, a one-way ticket can reach £40-50 within a week of travel, and up to £75 pounds purchase on the day.

Meanwhile, in NSW, a journey from Sydney to Newcastle, another former steel and coal city which lies 100 miles north along the Pacific coast, costs a fraction of this price. From Monday to Saturday, a trip to Newcastle costs A$8 (£4.50) and on Sunday just $2.70 (£1.50). And these, remember, are on-the-day prices. In addition, on Sunday there is a $2.70 fare cap, meaning that the charge to your Opal card (an Oyster Card equivalent) is a nominal $0.23 (10p).

During a recent episode of This Week, “Choo Choo” Portillo strongly defended the privatisation of British Rail, emphasising that the number of tragic rail accidents that had occurred during his time in government in the early 1990s had been partly responsible for persuading him that the operator had to be privatised. He is known also for boasting that the privatisation the government he served in pushed through is responsible for the rise in passenger numbers in the past twenty years.


During his new series, Portillo will travel from Sydney to Broken Hill, NSW. An economy seat for the trip booked a week in advance will cost approximately £35 for the 600-mile journey.

For those wishing to simulate the same journey in the UK, one can purchase a ticket for the 600-mile journey from London to the Kyle of Lochalsh. A week in advance, this ticket is priced at £183 on the National Rail Enquiries website. Has Portillo ever discussed the price of his rail tickets during his show? What he will make of the NSW system in comparison to Britain?

The cost of rail transport in the UK is scandalous. It impacts not only on the ability of people to access jobs and training in other cities, but also inhibits their cultural mobility. Portillo may have had his reasons for advocating the privatisation of British Rail, but he should now explain why the current British system is superior to that offered elsewhere. It is noteworthy that the company responsible for operating the NSW system, Transport for New South Wales, is a statutory authority, created by the Liberal-National Party coalition which took control of the NSW Government in 2011. (The Liberals are the Australian equivalent of the Conservative Party.)

Such is the scale of the problem in the UK that it has recently been remarked that air travel is becoming a cheaper and more convenient method of intercity travel than rail. This would be acceptable in Australia – a train journey from Sydney to Melbourne can take nine hours – making a one hour flight for $50 dollars a reasonable investment for commuters. However, the fact that it can be cheaper to be flown in a private plane from London to Newcastle rather than take the three hour train journey indicates that our system is broken.

If the Labour Party are serious about reforming rail travel, then the NSW system should be examined closer as a model for renewing British rail infrastructure.

All of the ticket costs in this article were worked out on www.nationalrail.com and www.transportnsw.info.

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.