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"Chester-le-track, a 21st Century Railway Booking Office" by Alex Nelson, stationmaster, Chester-le-Track: Edinburgh meeting of 16th October 2012

Alex Nelson with colleague Justin at the Edinburgh meeting.d

Alex Nelson with colleague Justin at the Edinburgh meeting.

© John Yellowlees, 2012

Alex's background was in buses in Kent, where Orpington Rural Transport was masterminded by transport integration guru John Wylde. A geographer who graduated from Durham, he joined the National Bus Company, which was privatised in 1987, and left at flotation in 1994, having been in Lesotho which widened his horizons.

Chester-le-Street Station has given him a platform, for when he started running coach trips, booking hotel rooms cheaply, he found that people really wanted to go by train to London so enquired about group rates. However he didn't get much joy until one afternoon his train stopped at Chester-le-Street : he saw the "to let" signs and realised that he could restore it to its former purpose even though that had not been in the industry's mind.

So he told the then station operator Northern Spirit that he was interested in running it as a station, learning that they struggled to collect fares in the 9-minute run to Newcastle. He found that the tourist office at Haltwhistle Station took 9% commission on Northern Spirit, 8% other train operators' ticket sales, and the builder managed to fit out the premises at Chester-le-Street round him. Takings were just £17 on the first day in 1999, but £10k last Monday.

Alex registered the name nationalrail.com but ATOC wanted it, so he offered to loan the name in return for free First Class which was thought outrageous - but he did a deal with Thetrainline.com and the tickets sold at Chester-le-Street are now processed at their office in Edinburgh. Today Chester-le-Track also do hotel accommodation, car hire, ferries and airlines, and can advise on split ticketing for best value, sometimes booking customers to beyond their destination where it's cheaper to do so.

One loophole that can't be plugged so as to get the associated benefits that have been in place since Network Southeast days is the cheapest annual season ticket in South East England, which is from Ryde St Johns Road to Ryde Esplanade for £140, an outlay that the benefits can soon outweigh.

Chester-le-Track have been selling Oystercards in credit-card size since 2006 so that people from the north-east can arrive in London already ticketed, and so as to raise their profile sponsored a horse race at Redcar which prompted a call from Transport for London to ask where they were getting the cards from: they blew the market open, and now Oystercards are widely available from the Visit Britain website.

Open access operator Grand Central were keen to have their Tees-side railhead at Eaglescliffe staffed but not keen to run it themselves, so apprentices renovated the station and since March 2012 he staffs it throughout hours of GC operation with 4 staff members there and 6 at Chester-le-Street.

Eaglescliffe's 69 trains a day compare to 22 at Chester-le-Street, a town which fate denied its dominant place in the region when St Cuthbert's remains were moved from there to Durham because of Viking raids, hence now its two-hourly service - but he is campaigning for all Trans Pennine trains to call. Three-quarters of his telesales are from the north-east of England, where people are pleased to have the opportunity of speaking to a real person who is locally-based.

His niche is quirky but hard-nosed, and ATOC's most recent offer of £60k to buy him out was derisory : with independent ticketing agencies to be found also at several other stations notably on the Arriva Trains Wales network, he would like to grow the business for the sake of the whole industry.

The Scottish Region would like to thank Edinburgh City Council for hosting the event and providing the light buffet.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.

 

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