Opinion: 'Delays and cancellations mean nobody with any sense would rely on the trains these days'

I'll believe it when I see it. So said the woman sat on the cold, metal bench next to me at Sheffield station. The time was 8.51am and our train was approaching the station, according to the announcement.
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It was over an hour late and we were already supposed to be at our destination. All but one service to or through Sheffield had been cancelled or delayed. It was not only rush-hour but also the school holidays and yet our transport system was displaying its faults in all their hideous glory. One excuse after another ... signalling faults, shortage of staff, problems on the line, electrical problems to name but a few.

The day before, I had been hosting an Off The Shelf event and had innocently enquired if our visitors from Bristol had travelled on the train. They looked at me as if I was completely crazy. They'd driven, of course, because nobody with any sense would rely on the trains these days.

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It is hard to disagree when faced with the evidence, although my heart is so desperate for our public transport to be reliable that I still use it ... only to be reliably let down. I've rather ambitiously just renewed my family rail card, even though the desire to drive grows stronger after every trip.

Delays and cancellations are rife on trains in and around SheffieldDelays and cancellations are rife on trains in and around Sheffield
Delays and cancellations are rife on trains in and around Sheffield

I took my two sons to Manchester on Saturday. We allowed plenty of time but still missed the first half an hour of our event. I can honestly say I have never experienced such an awful journey. It was the first day of half-term and Sheffield station was busier than I've seen it for years. I thought that was a good thing at first. As our train’s expected arrival became more and more delayed, it quickly started to feel overcrowded. If we hadn't had to be somewhere at a certain time, I would have left.

My youngest son, at ten, clung onto my arm and was genuinely scared as the crowd surged when the train finally pulled in. Not surprisingly, the delayed train was already worse than standing room only and just a tiny percentage of those waiting in Sheffield were able to squeeze on. We followed the advice and rushed to a new platform, to another delayed and overcrowded train.

We managed to get on, lodged upright between a bin and the toilet door. On the platform, a young mum with her daughter and large suitcase was told there was no room. She burst into tears and wasn't the only one. All she wanted to do was get to Manchester Airport. Sheffield's direct service was cut during lockdown and now it was clear she wasn't even going to make it indirectly. Everyone breathed in tighter and we pulled on her suitcase, jamming the extra two bodies on board. There were plenty left behind though.

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Our return journey later that day was only half an hour delayed and standing, but nowhere near as squished. A friend did the reverse journey the following day. "It wasn't bad," she said. "The kids sat on my knee and we were only 35 minutes later." That's the level of expectation we have of a once great public network.

My daughter called me in tears recently. She was travelling from Sheffield to Edinburgh but her train had unexpectedly ended in Leeds. She was completely stuck and it was late at night.

When she messaged for a refund, she was assured she would get one but it never came. After more than an hour on the phone a few days later, she was given a refund for the outward journey but not the return, because apparently that hadn't been delayed or cancelled. The fact she had been physically unable to get there in the first place and was thus unable to return, apparently made no difference. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at a service that seems run for anything but to help the public.

I don't know if bringing trains back into public ownership is the answer but, if done properly, it should be. British Rail wasn't great but it was an awful lot better than what we have now. This country is packed with brilliant brains - sadly, none of them seem to have or want the most important leadership roles. But we have to dare to dream what could be created with a service that was so good and so affordable, people preferred to leave their cars and pollution at home. Let's go wild and imagine that we could even have reliable bus and tram services waiting for passengers at the start and end of their train journey.

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My grandad worked on the trains. He rose to the dizzying heights of station master and the pride he had in where he worked - both the service and he helped people - was visible for all to see. Today's staff are permanently braced for abuse from a public which has lost its patience and, wrongly, takes it out on those who are definitely no longer proud to wear the uniform. You can't blame them. If travelling is hard, imagine facing that every hour of your unnecessarily long working day.

My youngest son still occasionally puts on my grandad's old station master hat. It's just about the only connection with a service that has been systematically decimated. Horrific, is the word he uses to describe our recent train journeys. And with that, I can hear his great grandad turn in his grave. It doesn't have to be like this, is what I'm sure he'd say if he was still here.