What happened to British trains?

There is always a danger in over-romanticizing the past, making it seem far better than it was.  When it comes to the British railways, I have no doubt that there were plenty of problems with the old, nationalized network.

British Rail: lamented or lamentable?

Nonetheless, the current, privatized system is definitely not great.  For example, unless you know how to play the game it is rather difficult to get cheap tickets.  Foreign visitors unfamiliar with the baffling complexity of it all have no chance.

At the moment, though, the thing that bothers me most is the trains themselves.  At least in the north, they seem to be undergoing an identity crisis.

Virgin and Cross-Country pretend their services are aircraft; shiny pseudo-planes ready to take off across the country.  This is ok I suppose, a nod to glamour, even if it's difficult to imagine you're flying as you chunter sluggishly through the factories and backyards of the industrial Midlands.

Pendolino trains

WorstGroup doesn't bother with such niceties.  Their northern services, ScotRail and TransPennine (run jointly with the French company Keolis), aren't run as trains, but buses: crowded and crummy and as cattle-classy as they possibly can be.  Despite this, and getting awarded plenty of public subsidy, they charge passengers a small fortune for the displeasure of travelling with them.  No wonder they announced rail profits of £55.7m last year.

Northern Rail services are even more basic, apparently, but I have to confess I've never used them.

As far as I can tell, the only company in which the vehicles still look like trains is East Coast.  Given that I am using the railway network because I want to travel on a train, I book with them whenever I have the option.  There are usually enough carriages to accommodate the passengers, and the seats aren't too cramped.  Their service isn't perfect by any means, but it's not too bad.

East Coast: not a model railway, but not bad.

And guess who currently owns East Coast?  The taxpayer.  The previous (private) owners declared it unprofitable, so the government had to take back control in 2009.  Presumably the outrageous approach of running a proper-looking train service means it can't make pots of money.

But don't worry.  Last year, the then transport secretary Philip Hammond announced that a new franchise would be issued in 2013.  Once the re-privatization is complete, we can look forward to those nasty old East Coast carriages being replaced with something more compact, more efficient, and more cost-effective.  Probably looking something like this:

An East Midlands train with no passenger carriages at all.

Or this.