This month’s increase in rail fares isn’t that huge – but commuters are still right to be furious

Oh, Northern. Image: Wikimedia Commons/RcsPrinter123.

It feels like a peculiarly British joke that the annual rise in rail fares happens at the exact point in the year when commuters are least enthusiastic about getting on a train and going to work. The first week back after Christmas is generally ghastly, even if you’re lucky enough to like your job: throw in an unavoidable increase in the cost of getting there, and it comes with an effective pay cut as well. Why anyone would bother doing dry January too is a mystery to me. Perhaps they can’t afford to drink.

All that said, my hipster, controversialist, admittedly-not-a-person-who-needs-to-buy-a-season-ticket-to-do-my-job take on this week’s rail fare increase is – it’s not that bad. The campaign group Railfuture has described it as “yet another kick in the wallet”. But the actual scale of the increase – which averages 3.1 per cent in England and Wales, and 3 per cent in Scotland – is not that huge. It’s less than a point above the recent inflation: if that was the rate house prices increased by, millennials would be delighted. This should feel like a win.

And yet it quite clearly doesn’t. Why not?

One possibility is that “rail fares rise, commuters angry” is as well-worn a seasonal story as “council bans Christmas” or “snow causes chaos”: news desks are so much in the habit of sending reporters after this one they haven’t stopped to consider if it’s a valid complaint.


Another explanation relates to matters of geography and class. Regular train travel is actually a minority sport in Britain – research published by YouGov earlier this week shows that four in 10 Brits haven’t even set even foot on a train in the last year. The percentage of people who actually commute by rail is in single figures.

And yet, we obsess about the rail network, while ignoring the more widely used buses. Why? Because most of those commuting by train are heading for London – which just so happens to be where all the journalists and politicians are. Bus fares are also appalling – but those they affect simply aren’t as visible to the ruling class.

One side effect of this is that rail passengers tend, by national standards, to be relatively rich. This raises the uncomfortable possibility that reducing rail subsidies, by gradually increasing fares, might actually be the more progressive thing to do.

But, for two reasons, I don’t think it is: actually, I think commuters have a perfect right to be a bit pissed off that fares are going up by 3 per cent yet again.

One problem is the state of the railways themselves. For many months now they’ve been in a mess. New cross-city infrastructure in both London and Manchester was meant to lead to an increase in services and journey opportunities; what it actually led to was months of chaos and cancellations and lengthy statements from Chris Grayling explaining why, contrary to appearances, none of it was his fault. To someone who’s been trying to fight their way onto a two-car bus on rails every morning for the last year, the fact Northern managed to raise their fares before it managed to provide the service for which it was contracted just adds insult to injury.

The other reason anger over rail fare increases is justified relates to the wider economy. A 3 per cent increase in fares may not sound unreasonable – but by the same token, neither would a 3 per cent increase in wages. The latter, however, has not been forthcoming for many years, and that situation doesn’t soon seem likely to change. Under such circumstances, being told it’s going to cost you more just for the privilege of getting to your increasingly underpaid job just feels like taking the piss.

This article first appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.