One night after work, I sat down at my laptop, and opened the London North Eastern Railway, the latest incarnation of what was very recently Virgin East Coast, and before that East Coast. I wanted to go home for a weekend, in six week’s time. So I typed in London and Edinburgh, and waited.
There was a time when Gordon Brown was still Prime Minister, Fred Goodwin was a Sir, and I could get a return journey home for £50. Without wanting to give away any spoilers, those days are long gone. So I wasn’t surprised to find the cheapest fare this time was £129.50.
No, what riled me was the options. This, the website informed me, was the “Go Cheaper” option. But it urged me to splash out. “Go Classier”, it urged. Yes, you in the common seats. In other words, the seat that costs the equivalent of 16 hours worked at the minimum wage isn’t classy enough.
Britain’s trains are the residue of its class system, refurbished for the 21st century. In my experience, most passengers catching long distance trains heading north get only a few minute’s warning of the platform of departure. Because the First Class compartments invariably are nearest to the station gate, the passengers suddenly divide into a small group of strollers, mostly white and middle-aged, and a much larger mob of running families, students, and ordinary workers trying to get to the carriages at the far end in time. The reward is a seat on a crammed carriage, for five hours in some cases, where you might or might not be able to access a plug, a workable toilet etc.
Meanwhile, in First Class, you are a rail aristocrat. Occasionally, when the train gods are feeling benevolent, I have managed to upgrade to First Class for a reasonable price and quaff the red wine that flows freely (East Coast was a bounteous franchise). Anyone who has done this will know the sense of guilt when you are on your third glass, and the announcement comes over the tannoy: “We know the train is very crowded tonight.” With several carriages dedicated to First Class on a typical London-Edinburgh train, the vehicle is effectively a fish bowl attached to a sardine tin. But here’s the point: with prices in the hundreds of pounds for a return journey, all the sardines have paid through the gills for the privilege.
I understand the argument that trains are generally used by the wealthy. I understand that trains are expensive to run. I might fume about it, but I know that I am lucky to be able to pay £129.50 to go home when many people would have no choice but the eight-hour overnight Megabus. I often hear the refrain, “You don’t remember what British Rail was like,” and it’s true, I don’t (although I do remember getting two trains to Liverpool that were delayed, and then a third train that vanished entirely from the schedule, and each cost me £40 or so).
But it is a step beyond telling passengers to pay up to also nourish their sense of inadequacy. At least on flights, the ratio of First Class and Business seats to economy ones roughly reflects the number of gilded globetrotters that exist. Virgin’s Pendolino trains have four First Class carriages to seven standard ones, as if that is roughly the proportion of British train passengers who pay £244.50 for a one-way journey from London to Glasgow. In fact, passengers have long complained of First Class coaches being noticeably empty, to the point that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling called for them to be scrapped on busy commuter trains.
Ultimately, there is nothing “cheap” about a journey that costs £129.50, or any of the other journeys taken by people who, for one reason or another, moved to another part of the UK for work. There is nothing un-classy about the contract workers who squeeze themselves into a packed train on Friday night to go home to their families in a different city. There’s nothing un-classy about the millennials in long-term relationships who spend their stagnating wages not on avocados, but train fares. There’s nothing un-classy about the train staff in the standard coaches, who pick up rubbish, wheel trolleys and deal with crowds that First Class never sees.
Any reform to the trains will have to be costed. But not insulting your passengers? That’s free.
Julia Rampen is digital news editor at our sister site, the New Statesman.