Why Britain’s trains are the last bastion of the class system

Now with Wifi. Image: Getty.

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. Virgins 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.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

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