From the train station near where I grew up, trains go in one of two directions. In a dichotomy that tells you an awful lot about everything going wrong in the UK, departures from Didcot Parkway, in Oxfordshire, pretty much go towards London or away from London.
On platforms 1 and 3 you can go to thrilling places like Oxford, Bristol, Newport, Cardiff, and (pardon me, I’m getting overexcited) Swansea. On any other platform – but mostly platform 2 – you go to London Paddington. All this is courtesy of Great Western Railway (formerly First Great Western). GWR, as it's colloquially known, is infamous for its punitive policies that make it harder to take bikes on trains – a policy so egregiously awful it was once debated in Parliament.
And so, as I stood in Didcot Parkway with the shiny new bike I'd got for christmas, and I searched for the stopping service to Paddington, as I hadn’t managed to book a bike berth on the stupidly pedantic high-speed airliner-style service that zips along the M4 corridor at a pleasing pace... It was then, that I was hit by a revelation about trains in the UK. A revelation that can even bridge the divide between those happy with the mostly-privatised system we have now, those who would wish for full privatisation now, and the majority who want to see our railways re-nationalised. It was this:
British trains have a branding problem.
And no, I’m not talking about the fact that everyone goes on about how bad they are, even though to be perfectly honest we’re actually quite lucky.
Didcot Parkway, where dreams come to die. Image: Matt Buck.
As the minutes ticked by, and the time I would have to lug my bike up the stairs to the platform decreased, my panic grew more and more severe. Despite scouring the departure boards, the only London-bound trains I could find were the fast service to London Paddington (platform 2), and the local stopping service terminating at Ealing Broadway.
This was no use to me, as I couldn’t take my bike on the tube from Ealing Broadway all the way back to my place, and I had too many bags filled with leftover Christmas booze to be able to cycle it the ten or so miles.
I was in a blind panic – a panic so great that I did the unthinkable and actually asked for help.
At which point, I was told that the Ealing Broadway train does actually go all the way through to London Paddington, but the powers-that-be lie about its final destination so hapless commuters don’t get on it in a rush and end up an hour later into Paddington than they were planning.
Truly, I tell you, this is a failed state.
What hope for the (metaphorical, since I know we live in a Kingdom) republic when we must lie on our station departure boards so as not to mislead the public?
But it triggered a dangerous chain of thought. What information do we need from our trains, and what information is totally useless?
Does it materially affect my journey that my service provider is GWR, rather than, say Abellio Greater Anglia, Southern rail, or even – heaven forbid – Arriva Trains Wales?
Seeing as Arriva is secretly run by the German government, Abellio is run by the Dutch, and Southern is run by the shady and perpetually-incompetent Govia Thameslink Railway, it’s not even like these designations are offering any kind of corporate accountability – a mechanism by which I know at whom to get angry on the occasion of my train arriving 13 minutes behind schedule.
But while corporate branding and franchise designation reign supreme, our railway information systems actually tell us very little of use. Contrast this with Germany.
A really German departure board with some impressively late trains. Image: Fabian 318.
At Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof you’re faced with a departures board that tells you a train destination and intermediate stops (the same as in the UK, when they’re not lying to you), the platform number, and the time of departure along with any information about delays.
But then the Germans offer a little extra nugget, a simple but vital code that makes perfect sense dem Deutschen Volke who use the system regularly. IC, says one. ICE, smugly notes another, preening its feathers. RE, whispers one, a little ashamed. RB, offers another, shunned and dejected.
Wonderful! Marvellous! The Ealing Broadway Question (the great national challenge of our time, akin to the forever rumbling East Lothian Question) is solved!
That's because what these initials do is tell the passenger what kind of service is on offer; how fast it’ll travel, and many stops it’ll visit, and what kind of train will be used.
ICE, ICE, Baby. Image: Jivee Blau
ICE, or Intercity-Express, offers high-speed travel, stopping only at key cities and interchange hubs. IC – InterCity – offers a long-distance, quite-fast way of travelling, stopping at a few more provincial cities, regional centres, and large towns. Regional-Express (RE) is a, you guessed it, more regional service, stopping more often but still offering a faster service that won’t stop at every piddly village’s sad excuse for a station. That’s what the Regionalbahn (RB) is for.
It’s a beautiful system that tells you everything you need to know without having to lie on departure boards – and it’s the same across much of the continent. The French TGV is not only an iconic brand, but one that actually tells you about the functionality offered. All the name ‘Virgin Trains’ tells you is to expect gimmicks and a high-probability of some over-moneyed blond saddo getting on for a photo-op as if it’s still the Noughties and Blair’s hanging about smiling leeringly.
We get it, you're a hip guy. Image: Hardo Müller.
It’s over, Richard.
The Spanish have Renfe’s AVE, while the Swiss have ICs, IRs, REs and ECs – a beautiful network of usefully-branded, functionally-helpful trains.
At this point, I don’t care what you do the trains. Scrap the franchising system, privatise the lot, and call me when it all goes the same was as Railtrack. Or go for full renationalisation and we can all enjoy another round of gross stagnation of passenger numbers.
But whatever you do, don’t tell me if it’s Great Northern or Chiltern Railways, Southeastern or Abellio ScotRail. Give me a useful indication of what kind of train I’m dealing with, and be done with it.
After all: you don’t really need the London Overground banging on about how it’s run by Arriva UK Trains Limited, do you?