Monday, 10 September 2012

Reportage: Trans-Pennine Real Ale Trail 'out of control'

The Campaign for Real Ale’s book 101 Beer Days Out describes the popular attraction of taking a train ride along the Pennines, and sampling each pub along the route, saying “Let the train take the strain in a ride across the Pennines.”

The Real Ale Trail has been a popular day out for ale drinkers for many years, but since its inclusion as part of James May and Oz Clarke’s 2009 TV series Oz and James Drink to Britain, its popularity has exploded, but at what cost to local train passengers?

A company insider with Northern Rail has explained that the Real Ale Trail is out of control, due to the sheer numbers of passengers taking part: “We’re having big groups of mainly blokes aged 20 to 30, coming from all over the country. At every station, you’ve got around 60-70 people getting off, and another 60-70 people getting on, which is delaying the trains due to the size of the trains, and the size of the stations.“ Indeed, the bar manager at the Navigation, Mirfield, informed us that a group of 100 had given forewarning that they would be arriving at the pub sometime on Saturday, though did not specify a time.

Although the Real Ale Trail started life as a rather sober affair, with drinkers sampling a half-pint of ale at each stop, the Northern Rail insider described a typical Saturday: “It starts off all light-hearted and all well-meaning at about ten o’clock in the morning. By one o’clock they’re all quite merry, but then by four o’clock it all starts getting ridiculous with conductors getting abuse thrown at them, people being injured, and people throwing glasses around. They’re just downing as many pints as they can, taking glasses with them on the train, then carrying on at the next stop. The trains stink because people are missing the toilet, they spill beers, there’s broken glass, vomit.”

With such large numbers of passengers taking part in the Real Ale Trail, normal passengers and pub regulars steer clear on Saturdays. The Northern Rail insider reported an incident involving a mother travelling on the line with her two children: “the language and abuse she was getting because she had a pushchair in the way that was stopping some drunks getting on the train – she’ll never want to travel by train again.” A regular at the King’s Head in Huddersfield laughed when asked if he drank in there on a Saturday, noting that “It’s heaving; you get a ten minute window once an hour to get a drink. You just can’t relax. You’ll easily get about 400 in on a Saturday. I just go elsewhere.”

Perhaps the most distressing issue that the company insider raised is that of passenger safety: “There’s been issues with people running across the tracks at Mirfield to get to the pub, rather than going under the road bridge. Through Mirfield you’ve got the Tran-Pennine Express train going through at about 95 miles per hour, and when you’ve had a few beers, it’s very difficult to judge how fast a train’s going. I think it’s only a matter of time before something serious happens.”

When asked what can be done by the rail company to alleviate some of the issues, the insider felt that there was very little that could be done: “The line’s at capacity so we can’t put bigger trains on, and the platform length at each station is too short to put bigger trains on anyway.” He added that exasperated conductors had requested additional help from the company, but without success: “Northern Rail sent a few managers down to have a look, but they sent them on Easter weekend when no one was doing it. Unless trains start getting cancelled, no one’s really going to do anything about it. I mean they can’t exactly close the pubs along the line, why would they? And you can’t stop people from getting on a train because they’ve been drinking, so it’s really difficult.”

Though the rail company are struggling to deal with the vast number of passengers, the positive boost to the local pubs on the line cannot be denied. Sylvia Wood, manager of Station Buffet Bar, Stalybridge, said “I’ve only got positive things to say about it. We get hundreds in on a Saturday. When we’re too busy, this helps other local pubs as well.” Bar Managers down the line reported that they rarely get any trouble in the pubs, and that the proliferation of the Real Ale Trail has been great for business, though they had all heard about the troubles on the rail-line. Let the train take the strain, indeed.

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