'My experience of Spanish trains shows how far UK has to go'

Northern's new rolling stock being built in Zaragoza, SpainNorthern's new rolling stock being built in Zaragoza, Spain
Northern's new rolling stock being built in Zaragoza, Spain
It's often said that trains in Europe are streets ahead of the UK, so we sent our reporter David Nowell to find out.

He managed to travel 200 miles across Spain in the time it took him to travel from Manchester Airport home to Adlington.

He said: "As a regular rail commuter into Manchester for many years I found out like many Lancastrians that you have to take the rough with the smooth.

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Many Lancashire folk from the Preston and Chorley area choose to hop on the train into Manchester.The train is an essential mode of transport – and anything that keeps cars off the road has to be good.Setting off to see Northern’s new trains being made on the production line in Zaragoza, Spain, I decided to get the train from Adlington, the nearest station to my home.The fare to Manchester airport using Northern and Trans-Pennine services was £20 return, and travelling at mid-day midweek is one of the quieter times to travel on the rail network.Wandering up to my local station for the 12.11 is no hardship whatsoever on a fine day. The journey time is around one and a quarter hours with a change at Bolton.Adlington is one of the smaller stations on the Manchester - Blackpool line and has undergone a welcome makeover recently. The digital display giving out automated information and announcements in real time is very useful.Amazingly, a few minutes before the train is due there is an announcement. The 12.11 is running approximately two minutes late. Another few minutes go by and the same announcement is made just as the train pulls into the station. Maybe a bit too keen, but nothing wrong with customer information.I easily find a seat on the sparsely-populated train and space for my luggage. The service trundles along to Bolton, where I have to get off to change.A few minutes later the connection to Manchester Airport arrives bang on time. And then you notice the difference.The airport train is full and the extra passengers struggle to find a seat. We latecomers stand in the aisles and in the doorways, including a bloke with a bike. The train gets fuller still at Salford and then suddenly at Manchester Oxford Road there is a mass exodus.The remainder of the journey to the airport is made sitting down in an almost deserted carriage. Then it’s time to disembark at the superb airport station and wander through the airport to the appropriate terminal. All well and good - but we all know that travelling at a busier time of day the journey would have been much more claustrophobic and arduous. Which is exactly what happened on the way back two days later.Once in Spain, our hosts were keen to show us Northern’s new trains being built by CAF at its factory at Zaragoza.To our delight, we were going there on one of Renfe’s high-speed trains from Barcelona. The 200-mile journey takes just one and a half hours or less, and it really makes you realise how much catching up the UK has to do with the rest of Europe.The Renfe train (admittedly it is inter-city standard, unlike Northern’s short-haul fleet), is spacious, comfortable, and modern. Each carriage is only three seats wide. The black upholstery is immaculate, there is plenty of leg room and powerpoints for your mobile or laptop and the overhead TV monitors are showing a movie.The hostess comes round offering us free headphones. The toilets are spacious and clean.But the most striking thing is the speed and smoothness of the journey.The train whistles along at 100kmph, 200kmph and finally 300kmph. Your mind tries to do the conversion into miles per hour – 300 kmph is over 180mph. The countryside hurtles by and there is a little noise or vibration. It is like being on a plane.Although Northern’s trains will never be able to match that speed, the comfort, cleanliness and smoothness is exactly the kind of customer experience the company aspires to.Meanwhile, back in the UK. It was 3.30pm on a Thursday afternoon and I was heading back to the Manchester Airport train station with my luggage to return to Adlington. A journey of around 27 miles.I made the Preston train by seconds and sat down in what seemed a slightly grubby and basic carriage. The tray in front of me was filthy with dark stains. I decided not to put anything on it.The train of course got busier and busier as it went through Piccadilly, Oxford Road Deansgate, and Salford but I had my seat and I was happy. I knew from bitter experience it would be a different story trying to escape Manchester an hour later.I had no choice but to get off at Bolton, and wait for a train that called at my station, as the service I was on went straight through. It wouldn’t be long, would it?Well, actually it would be more than 30 minutes. A very cold and miserable 30 minutes on a platform without a café (that’s on the other side of the tracks). A succession of trains arrive, looking fuller and fuller.The Wigan and Southport trains arrive boasting just two carriages. People are almost literally hanging out of the windows. The train stops and people spill onto the platform – even those who don’t want to get off. There is no other way that people behind them can disembark. They then have to force their way back on.Finally my train arrives at around 4.40pm. It’s full to bursting and at first hardly anyone moves. They can’t, Then they pour onto the platform and I take my chance and push my way on, standing with my case in the doorway. I can’t help but notice the stained doors and weathered carriage. Weary-looking commuters are jammed elbow to elbow – but at least I’m on.At last we reach Adlington at around 5pm. I stumble onto the platform with cases in hand and I’m back, around 90 minutes after setting off from the airport. Ninety minutes for less than 30 miles.It has to be pointed out that Adlington is a fairly minor station so not all trains call there. But it is impossible not to think “An hour and a half from Manchester? I travelled 200 miles in comfort in that time in Spain.’Another thought strikes me: HS2 or 3 may well cut journey times between major cities - mainly benefiting business people. Would the average person rather spend that money on a comfortable, reliable and punctual journey to and from work?