Holly Baxter in The Independent
Watching the absurdity that is TrainGate unfold last night, I couldn’t help but feel that this was a real David and Goliath moment. Isn’t it nice when a billionaire tax-avoiding business magnate with a knighthood takes on a cruel and calculating powerhouse like Labour’s autocratically-minded leader of the opposition and wins? Isn’t it heartening to see the mainstream media take Richard Branson’s side for once, rather than deferring to the statements of a political figure who probably has lots to gain financially from the renationalisation of the railways? After all, it’s not like Branson, the owner of a private company that operates trains, would be affected by things like that. So I think we can all agree that, at the very least, his motives are pure and driven by a rigorous pursuit of objective justice and truth. As for Corbyn, who knows what devious schemes he could have up his sleeve once he’s allowed to hand control of some public transport back to the taxpayer? Isn’t that how Nazi Germany started?
As a born-and-bred Geordie who moved to London for university and stayed for work, I’ve taken the same Newcastle-bound train from London that Jeremy Corbyn sat on the floor of more times than I could count. In case anyone’s actually interested, I can categorically state that it was a lot more pleasant affair when East Coast Trains – the last nationalised arm of British railways – was running the show. The first thing that happened when it was sold off to Virgin was that prices went up and the loyalty scheme which allowed you to accrue points and use them to buy future journeys was stopped (it was replaced with a Nectar Points collaboration and a scheme that encourages you to collect Flying Club miles – two laughable air miles per £1 spent – which, you guessed it, can only be used on Virgin Atlantic planes).
Virgin might have released a press release (yes, for real) about Jeremy Corbyn’s journey this week, claiming that he’d find brilliantly cheap rail fares on their trains in future if he booked in advance, but the £120 return ticket to Durham that I bought weeks in advance for a friend’s wedding this weekend isn’t an anomaly. London to Durham is a journey of two and a half hours. The ridiculous fact that £90 is the cheapest I’ve ever seen a return ticket for it since Virgin took over speaks for itself.
Whether Corbyn sat on the floor to make a point, or because he didn’t look properly in all of the coaches for free seats, or because there were a couple of seats dotted about but he needed a few together for his team is immaterial to me. I’ve spent more than one Christmas Eve sitting curled up inside the luggage rack on the four-hour slow service back to my hometown because even the corridors are too packed to fit into, and I’ve paid extortionate amounts for the privilege. I know what Virgin Trains’ service on the east coast lines are like, even at their least crowded and their very best. A chirpy press release is, of course, going to talk up the “excellent offerings” available from London to Newcastle – but those people have never tried to eat one of their microwaved paninis or operate their on-board wifi, which, to put it kindly, exists more in the conceptual than the physical plane.
Privatised railways are a win for big businesses for obvious reasons: you can’t operate more than one train on one part of a railway line at one time; it’s not like selling a number of competing products together in a shop. Since new lines are hardly ever built, all a business really has to do is have enough money to buy up a monopoly on people’s journeys through whichever part of Britain it chooses. Then – hey presto! – guaranteed sky-high prices with the potential to increase exponentially, since your customer base has very little choice in the matter but to pay up or not travel at all. It’s a naturally uncompetitive business, which makes it a very good candidate for nationalisation and a very good profit-maker for companies with their eyes on the prize. Rail ticket prices, after all, go up like clockwork every year.
Astounded as I am by the fact that people have leapt on what is essentially one of the most boring political stories to have ever hit the headlines, I do support Corbyn’s policy of rail nationalisation in theory. Whether he sat on the floor and announced to camera that ram-packed trains are “a problem that many passengers face every day” as a publicity stunt or after only a half-hearted poke around for seats doesn’t concern me; the simple fact is that the statement is true.
What does concern me, however, is the way in which a discussion about one man sitting on the floor of a packed train has escalated into something which people are now referring to as TrainGate by anti-Corbyn factions, as if accidentally walking past a couple of unreserved seats on a train is genuinely comparable to one of modern America’s most controversial political scandals. I know this has been said a lot in the last few weeks, but really, Labour, have you lost your mind?