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.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.