SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024


Despite what ministers say, railway bosses have dropped their guards

To lunch with great friends in Tunbridge Wells (three generations of them) on sunny Saturday and because drink, inevitably, would be taken we went by train, a simple 45-minute trip from London Bridge. The rattler was packed because its final destination was Hastings so for the bucket-and-spade day trippers, sunscreen and, hopefully, sewage repellent was packed.


Fifteen minutes in and an announcement while at Orpington: ‘There may be a short delay, more as soon as I get it.’ Sadly that delay turned out to be the result of a fatality on the line at Chelsfield just outside Sevenoaks and there were no more trains until 3.30, more than four hours later. 


So the entire contents of eight carriages decanted and waited for an announcement. Which never came. Everyone took to their phones and the word went round to get the next service one stop to Chislehurst where there might be a train to Sevenoaks, a few miles nearer our destination, via a line that avoided the fatal incident.


It turned out to be bum info but at least it was info which was more than anything provided by Southeastern or Network Rail. And that was because there were no staff at either of these very busy commuter stations where we stopped. And as a provider of essential services to the paying public that is utterly unacceptable. 


Earlier in the week we got the train to Brighton for a long stroll and lunch at China Garden, our all-time favourite. It was so packed we resorted to perching in First Class (the only difference from Standard, apart from price, appears to be the bit of cloth over the back of seats on which to rest your weary head) where we chatted to a lovely woman who told us she was partner of a Thameslink driver. So next time you believe the rhetoric that the current rail strikes is all about greedy ASLEF members, delve deeper than the PR guff from government and train operators.


What she told us (and she was more convincing than the invisible transport secretary Mark Harper) is how few guards there are these days (also known as conductors or customer operations managers or whatever.) A packed 10 or 12 carriage service can carry up to 1,500 passengers, all the responsibility of one employee, the driver. There is cctv in the cab so the driver, apart from looking ahead at speeds of up to 80 mph, watching for signals, monitoring dials and instruments and listening to messages, can see if anyone has their feet on the seat or is puffing on a vape.


At stations where there is a curve along the platform the driver is unable to see the full length of his charge before starting off. There are few ticket offices any more and even fewer station staff. Which is exactly why the total dearth of information at Chislehurst is likely to be the norm very soon.


 First a stat: Alzheimer’s is now the biggest cause of death in the UK, more than heart disease or cancer. That’s the bad news, now for the good. It should be a thing of the past within five to ten years.


I learned this when I met one of the country’s leading neurologists a few days ago. She is carrying out clinical trials for a drug, already nearing approval in the US, which attacks the build up of amyloid plaque on brain cells. It is this plaque which eventually destroys those cells leading to Alzheimer’s and all its terrible consequences. Catch those rogue amyloids early and they are just flushed away through the body’s system to do no more harm. At least that’s the layman’s version.


The trick is the early detection. Once the drug is approved here, possibly within two years, it means as soon as you can’t remember why you went upstairs, your GP should be able to prescribe it. The alternative was provided by the late great Barry Cryer who came up with the idea of the jet propelled stair lift. Oh well, please yourself.


 Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York is in the news again (never out of it in fact) with the Sunday Times reporting that liquidators of Gate Ventures, a failed investment company of which she and Michael Grade were directors, are suing them to recoup £19 million lost by Gate.


Under investigation is a £500,000 loan made by the company to Fergie. She really is the story that keeps on giving … or more accurately keeps on taking.