Virgin Trains wants to ban standing on trains, even though it’s the best part of the UK rail system

A Virgin train, probably including standing passengers. Image: Getty.

If you’ve spent much time travelling on long-distance rail services around the world, you’ll know that they vary immensely in speed, quality, reliability and price. But one thing that they almost all share is that you can’t just buy a standard ticket and get on the next train.

Even for state-run services like the French TGV or New Zealand’s KiwiRail, you need to buy an advance ticket for a specific seat and time. In countries with private on-rail competition like Italy, it’s even more of a nightmare, with competing services and incompatible tickets sold in different parts of the station.

Things are different in the UK. If you want to save money and book a specific seat on a specific train online, then you can – but you don’t have to. A flexible walk-on ticket is valid to get on any train to your destination, no matter which train operating company (TOC) sold you the ticket. You don’t have to book a seat, and even if there aren’t any seats available then you don’t have to miss the train, if you don’t mind standing.

This nearly didn’t happen. When British Rail was privatised, the original plans would have deregulated ticketing, allowing the same kind of mess that proliferates elsewhere. But thankfully, clearer heads prevailed on this issue, preserving the integrated ticket system from the passenger’s point of view. An IT system called ORCATS uses complicated algorithms to work out how to split the money raised between TOCs.

Under the current arrangements, which have barely changed since 1994, TOCs can offer cheaper fares valid only on their own services or on advance bookings – but they must continue offering and accepting flexible any-operator tickets.

Price regulation focuses on these flexible tickets, with their price rises held down no matter what TOCs choose to do with their own fares. And unless it’s unsafe to do so – which is rarely the case, as all modern trains’ crash safety is designed with crush loading in mind – they have to take anyone on the train who has a valid ticket and wants to get on it.

According to research by the Office of the Rail Regulator, passengers like this flexibility. The regulator found that passengers are willing to pay substantially more for a fully flexible ticket than one valid only at specified times or valid only for a specified TOC. In short, although the system needs to be updated to adjust for the smartphone and online age, as traditional orange printed tickets become outdated, ticketing is one of the things that the British rail system does pretty well.


This makes Virgin Trains’s submission to the Williams Review into the UK rail system a bit surprising. Virgin, which currently operates long distance services from London to northwest England and western Scotland, wants to get rid of flexible ticketing and move to an all-reserved system where only people with a seat can travel on any particular train.

At first look, it’s hard to see who this would benefit.

It would reduce some of the complexity associated with the ORCATS system, but it wouldn’t remove it altogether – unless everyone travelling from Brighton to Rochdale is forced to buy three separate tickets, connecting fares still need to be sold for passengers travelling from stations outside the Virgin network, and the revenue for those tickets would still need to be divided between operators.

It wouldn’t make life easier for passengers, who currently have the choice of buying a discount advance ticket via the Virgin website, or of buying a full-fare ticket on the day; all it would do is to remove the second option. And it would prevent people from travelling at busy times of day unless they book their ticket well in advance.

Maybe it’s the latter that Virgin wants. The company attracted a great deal of bad PR in 2016, after leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn travelled on a full Virgin train on a flexible ticket. Corbyn’s communications team put out a press release about how the fact that the trains are full is terrible, in order to advance his policy of rail nationalisation.

It’s strange that people on all sides of the rail debate use the fact that trains in the UK are full at busy times as a sign that the system is failing, rather than an indication of its enormous success. Trains and railways are expensive capital equipment which cost almost the same to operate whether they are full or empty, so it is best both to society and to the environment if their peak capacity involves them running as full as possible.

Still, “Full trains are bad” has become the popular narrative, and it’s easy to see why branded TOCs don’t want to be associated with them. Seat rationing would make life harder for passengers, but the inconvenience it would cause is far less visible to the general public than the inconvenience of being on a jam-packed train at a popular time of day. And if the company is feeling especially greedy, then it could also jack up the prices on these popular trains, now that capacity is artificially restricted by banning standing.

So Virgin’s proposal is in its own interests – or at least, will be in its interests if it is able to keep its franchise, which is another story. But it certainly isn’t in the interests of the travelling public.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.