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.

 
 
 
 

London’s rail and tube map is out of control

Aaaaaargh. Image: Getty.

The geographical limits of London’s official rail maps have always been slightly arbitrary. Far-flung commuter towns like Amersham, Chesham and Epping are all on there, because they have tube stations. Meanwhile, places like Esher or Walton-on-Thames – much closer to the city proper, inside the M25, and a contiguous part of the built up area – aren’t, because they fall outside the Greater London and aren’t served by Transport for London (TfL) services. This is pretty aggravating, but we are where we are.

But then a few years ago, TfL decided to show more non-London services on its combined Tube & Rail Map. It started with a few stations slightly outside the city limits, but where you could you use your Oyster card. Then said card started being accepted at Gatwick Airport station – and so, since how to get to a major airport is a fairly useful piece of information to impart to passengers, TfL’s cartographers added that line too, even though it meant including stations bloody miles away.

And now the latest version seems to have cast all logic to the wind. Look at this:

Oh, no. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The logic for including the line to Reading is that it’s now served by TfL Rail, a route which will be part of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail, when they eventually, finally happen. But you can tell something’s gone wrong here from the fact that showing the route, to a town which is well known for being directly west of London, requires an awkward right-angle which makes it look like the line turns north, presumably because otherwise there’d be no way of showing it on the map.

What’s more, this means that a station 36 miles from central London gets to be on the map, while Esher – barely a third of that distance out – doesn’t. Nor does Windsor & Eton Central, because it’s served by a branchline from Slough rather than TfL Rail trains, even though as a fairly major tourist destination it’d probably be the sort of place that at least some users of this map might want to know how to get to.

There’s more. Luton Airport Parkway is now on the map, presumably on the basis that Gatwick is. But that station doesn’t accept Oyster cards yet, so you get this:

Gah. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a line, incidentally, between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, which is just down the road from St Albans City. Is that line shown on the map? No it is not.

Also not shown on the map: either Luton itself, just one stop up the line from Luton Airport Parkway, or Stansted Airport, even though it’s an airport and not much further out than places which are on the map. Somewhere that is, however, is Welwyn Garden City, which doesn’t accept Oyster, isn’t served by TfL trains and also – this feels important – isn’t an airport.

And meanwhile a large chunk of Surrey suburbia inside the M25 isn’t shown, even though it must have a greater claim to be a part of London’s rail network than bloody Reading.

The result of all these decisions is that the map covers an entirely baffling area whose shape makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s an extremely rough map:

Just, what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

I mean that’s just ridiculous isn’t it.

While we’re at it: the latest version shows the piers from which you can get boats on the Thames. Except for when it doesn’t because they’re not near a station – for example, Greenland Pier, just across the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs, shown here with CityMetric’s usual artistic flair.

Spot the missing pier. You can’t, because it’s missing. Image: TfL/CityMetric.

I’m sure there must be a logic to all of this. It’s just that I fear the logic is “what makes life easier for the TfL cartography team” rather than “what is actually valuable information for London’s rail passengers”.

And don’t even get me started on this monstrosity.

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