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Rail costs get me steaming.

Byline: By Dan O'Neill South Wales Echo

So it was a huge anniversary last week then. Hope you didn't miss it.

On station platforms around the world they remembered a true pioneer - The Unknown Trainspotter. It's 200 years since this trailblazer, the world's first anorak, whipped out his quill, picked up his parchment and wrote down 'Number One!'

Yes, history was made when he spotted Richard Trevithick's locomotive clanking along the line between Penydarren and Abercynon in February, 1804.

Incidentally he'd have to wait until 1805 and follow Trevithick to Gateshead before writing down Number Two. A year between trains? Some things haven't changed.

That first locomotive pulling 10 tons of iron and 70 passengers took four hours and five minutes to travel nine miles - so not much change there, either. The buffet car was closed as well.

Well, that's how it started. Now let us leap forward a couple of centuries, for trains and engines are in the news once more.

Queen Liz has just been handed a shiny new present: an engine to pull the royal train. It's called the Queen's Messenger, is painted in something called royal claret, and cost a whacking pounds 1.5m.

Odd, this, because not long ago the Public Accounts Committee said the Queen should consider leasing from a commercial operator like Virgin - and why not, seeing that this was the nickname of her illustrious predecessor Liz I?

(And you can bet that it'd be one Virgin train dead on time).

Anyway, all you Valleys commuters out there who moan about the cost of tickets on our over-priced, predatory transport should think yourselves lucky. When Charles made the return trip from London to Newcastle last year it cost him pounds 24,021.

Brrrinnnnggggg! Hang on. The phone.

What's that? It didn't cost HIM pounds 24,021? It cost us pounds 24,021? Out of our taxes? Yep, last year taxpayers like you and me forked out pounds 872,000 for just 19 royal train trips. Yet in 2002 Sir Michael Peat, then the Keeper of the Privy Purse (two steps up from a Gentleman of the Bedchamber), said that after Jubilee Year when it would whisk the royals round the country, 'we will look at it again'.

He admitted 'it is expensive... we want to take whatever measures are necessary.'

Well the obvious necessary measure would be to scrap the thing. When Victoria took the first royal train trip from Windsor to Paddington in 1842 there weren't many alternatives. But now? Why can't Queenie travel in helicopters or Daimlers like the rest of us? She's got enough of 'em.

Sorry! Sir Michael of the Privy Purse claimed that trains would arrive on time while 'other forms of transport like helicopters could be grounded by bad weather'.

Has he never heard of leaves on the line?

But earlier this month the Queen and Dook took the regular 10.18 from Paddington to Oxford for an official visit. Naturally the train left on time. She got a seat - well, there were only the two of them in the last, specially decorated carriage. She was given coffee and biscuits. Just like the rest of us, eh? But if it worked from Paddington to Oxford - why not from here to there?

Now here's another funny thing. The most celebrated locomotive since Stephenson's Rocket is up for sale and could go to an American buyer. A scandal. It's part of our industrial history.

I'm talking about the Flying Scotsman, the greatest steam engine of 'em all, the first to reach 100mph, built in 1923 but fully restored in the '90s. So if we HAVE to have a royal train, Your Maj, couldn't the Flying Scotsman pull it?

What better monument for that Unknown Trainspotter?
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Feb 24, 2004
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