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Let the modern train increase your strain.

SITTING on a Virgin train to London the other day, I felt the greatest sympathy for a Spanish couple opposite me.

When the ticket collector came round, he informed them that they were on the wrong train. Their tickets were valid only for a service an hour later - after 10am - and they would have to pay an excess.

The poor Spaniards were understandably shocked when they were forced to fork out another pounds 25 each.

They were probably thinking that they could fly home for the same cost as a Birmingham to London fare.

They must also have been wondering why the train took almost two hours to travel only 100 miles while trains in Spain - and France, and in fact most countries - are far faster.

And who could blame them for buying the wrong tickets? There is now a mind-boggling variety of options, from a Business Saver and The Weekender to Virgin Value 3-Day Advance and Virgin Groupies, whatever they are.

The rail staff are just as confused as the rest of us, having to look up information in a book twice the size of a phone directory. No wonder they give out misleading advice.

It wouldn't surprise me to be told that if I travelled on the third Tuesday of a month with an R in it, I could qualify for a bargain Super Standard Saver - but only if travelling between 10.43am and 11.17am.

There are plenty of posters advertising return fares from Birmingham to London for only pounds 15, but the number of restrictions on these tickets are ridiculous.

A friend booking a journey two weeks in advance was told that the only train she could take that day was at 6.30am and her seat would have to be in the smoking carriage. She was brusquely informed that nowadays you have to book up months in advance.

If you want to travel at any remotely convenient time, you have to pay pounds 80. Shocking.

The exorbitant prices would not be so bad if Virgin also offered a great service. I am a fairly regular rail user and I used to experience the odd late train, but the delays have never been as bad as in recent weeks.

I spent four long, hot hours stuck on a train recently because of an overhead line power failure in the Tring area - funny how it's always Tring where things go wrong.

On another recent occasion there was chaos when New Street station flooded. Only last week there was a delay leaving Euston because of signalling problems.

And all this is before engineering works began on Proof House Junction, just south of New Street, adding 30 minutes to journey times. We can only hope that this work, costing pounds 36 million, will improve services, but I'm not holding my breath.

I must, however, praise Virgin for one recent innovation - the introduction of a Quiet Coach on every train, where you can escape constantly ringing mobile phones. The fact that it's the one coach in which you can find a seat is a sign of how much we rely on mobiles.

Most people seem to be simply phoning home saying they're going to be two hours late - because the train is delayed.
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Author:Laws, Roz
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Aug 13, 2000
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