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Saturday 26 August 2017

Traingate - Branson Bashing Pointless

The saga known as Traingate has leapt back into life after a group called Double Down News obtained full CCTV footage of the train on which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn could not find a seat when travelling from London’s Kings Cross terminus to Newcastle last year. The message from the footage is that Jezza was wronged by the original response, which suggested there were plenty of empty seats.
That much of the press proceeded to ignore this new angle on the story then provoked yet more indignation among many on the left, which has culminated in an orgy of Branson bashing, mainly using images from packed trains departing from Kings Cross yesterday evening. While this is understandable, I have to tell all those doing the bashing that this is an exercise which verges on the completely pointless.
Enter the obligatory pantomime villain

Let’s consider some of those pesky facts, starting with the V-Word.

The trains have Virgin on the side, therefore this is Richard Branson’s fault. Virgin Trains East Coast is actually 90% owned by Stagecoach.

The trains were all rammed full - anyone could see that. Yes they were, and they could also see that it was the Friday evening before the August Bank Holiday weekend. During the Edinburgh Festival. And Friday evenings are always a busy time. That doesn’t mean Jezza’s train was not full, of course, but equally it doesn’t prove it was.
Virgin overbooked (or oversold) the train. Let’s take this nice and slowly. You can, and at busy times are strongly advised to, get a seat reservation. But you can also buy a ticket for immediate travel with no reservation. Ticket sellers (all of them, not just VTEC) can sell as many of the latter as are demanded. That’s the reality of train travel in the UK.

We had to stand and/or sit on the floor. The railway will try its best to get you to your destination. But when you’re allowed to buy walk-up fares without the need for reservations, the result at busy times should be obvious. And the remedy is equally obvious, although less palatable: you get left on the platform.
There aren’t enough trains, are there? Gone are the days when a scratch set of coaches could be dug out of the nearest carriage sidings, scrubbed down and used to relieve Friday or holiday (or both) crowds. And the Government specifies the timetable.

Why don’t they just hire or buy more, then? Neither VTEC, nor any other franchised operator, can just go out and hire more trains without Government say-so. The DfT underwrites lease charges, and without its approval, nothing new gets bought or hired.

It was better when it was publicly owned. East Coast, the Government-run operation which came before VTEC, ran the same trains. And they got busy at busy times, too.
It was cheaper when it was publicly owned. This is, in the case of book ahead fares, probably true. VTEC got the franchise by agreeing to pay significant amounts to the Government, and that meant increasing revenue beyond routine fare increases. Which is part of the strategy of successive Governments (Labour, Coalition and Tory) to make passengers pay more of the cost of running the trains.

Trains being full at busy times is not confined to one operator. And it will carry on happening while there is the right to buy a “walk-up” ticket without a seat reservation. You have an alternative - no seats available, you don’t get on (as seen in Italy, France, Spain and Portugal). You wouldn’t be allowed on a coach or aircraft without a reserved seat. This, too, is nothing to do with Richard Branson.

And one last caution to those chanting “You’re getting nationalised in the morning”: none of what is being complained about would change under Labour’s plans to bring franchised operations back into public ownership. I’ll just leave that one there.


Anonymous said...

"Virgin Trains East Coast is actually 90% owned by Stagecoach."

How much do they pay into a tax haven for the use of the brand name?

pete c said...

Why is it that those who choose to pontificate on transport and specifically the railways,(as a prop) invariably know diddly-squit - but never rope in those who do, of whom there are rather a lot.

And you might have thought that those at DoubleDown do-nothing might have known that it is also the last weekend of the 70th anniversary of the Edinburgh Festival. Which folk go to in their droves.

And then there is all the extra business hoping to use Kings Cross because Euston is shut today and tomorrow.

1 out of 10 though, for managing to spell Virgin, Stagecoach, Branson correctly.

SteveB said...

@Anonymous: 100%-90%=10%

amazing how many armchair railway experts crawl out of the woodwork when they see a name they think they know something about.

this weekend's quiz, what percentage does Virgin Group own of the following well known companies:

Virgin Trains West Coast
Virgin Atlantic Airlines
Virgin Active
Virgin Money
Virgin Radio UK
Virgin Cinemas
Virgin Drinks

and for bonus points, which multi millionaire actually controls Virgin East Coast and what form of transport which benefits from the overspill does he also control (clue, it's blue and has a Dara O'Briain lookalike on the back).

Personally I'm all in favour of these saddos who sit on the piss soaked floor outside the toilets because they are too dim to read reservation labels and work out which bit of the journey isn't reserved - means I never have to stand. I have on many occasions stepped over them and found seats. On one occasion I stepped over them 10 seconds before the doors were closed at Euston and found 8 (yes EIGHT) empty seats in one coach. Once moving I stepped over them again to go to the buffet and on the way back told them where the empty seats were to which they replied "we're OK thanks! That was also a bank holiday Friday

Anonymous said...

Surely the point here is that Branson deliberately released still photographs of the train interior, that were designed to tell a story that wasn't true.

Predictably the press and right leaning politicians used it as another stick to beat Corbyn with, despite the fact that almost all of those involved knew that Branson was distorting the truth.

This country is at a point now where our media is so one eyed, that I suspect I would get more balanced reporting from Pravda, Branson is being attacked because it was obvious from the beginning of the affair that he was telling porkies.

I know Tim that you are not enamoured with Corbyn, but condsider that the reason that the press and their partners in falsehood are finding it so hard to land a blow on him is because although not perfect in all respects, he is at heart a honourable and decent man.

I believe your reservations about him are based on your perception of his competence, and again I ask you to consider how much firepower has been loosed on the man and yet he has managed to not only win two internal elections, but also turned round a Tory lead of 22 points to almost nothing, the party is in the best shape financally it has been for many years, membership is at (I believe) levels not seen for 50 years.

Maybe you think he is too left wing, again cast your mind back to what the Labour party used to be, and indeed was intended to be.
The Manifesto that Labour proposed at the last election was probably to the right of past Tory leaders like Mcmillan and Heath.

Incidentally from a personal viewpoint the last election result was not a suprise, and quite frankly I believe if it wasn't for the toxic Kezia Dugdale we would have won more in Scotland.
I grew up in the 70's and the way that the press depicts it, you would think mad dogs roamed the streets and communists hid under every bed, I Have to say the 70's were great, jobs were plentiful, unions had bargaining power, houses were affordable, and if you couldn't afford one there was a council house for you and your family.

Anonymous said...

Branson can't be blamed for anything because he does the square root of fuck all. He's a leech, nothing more.

He's never made or designed anything in his life. But he does live off the backs of creative people and their hard work.

For those who don't know, this makes him an "entrepreneur" and "a creator of wealth". A gobshite Brit version of Gordon Gekko or Bernie Madoff or the Enron hoods.

Which is why the establishment ensure he's always in the queue for ripoffs.

As complete a spiv as you'll find anywhere on the planet. But especially in London.

SteveB said...

@JohnSmith which bit of Branson doesn't control Virgin Trains East Coast didn't you understand? The company was perfectly entitled to release the images they did, Corbyns half wits made a specific and false claim against them and they missed out important facts as well (such as Corbyn had a reserved seat on another train but couldn't get himself to the station on time). And by the way, the beer that you are clearly responsible for is rubbish, must be you, has the same brand name.

Anyway, the answers to yesterdays quiz, how much does Virgin Group own:

Virgin Trains West Coast - 51%
Virgin Atlantic Airlines - 20%
Virgin Active - 20%
Virgin Money - 34%
Virgin Radio UK - zero! it's part of NewsCorp who pay to use the name
Virgin Cinemas - gone, but still rank high in Google search
Virgin Drinks - ditto

Virgin Trains East Coast is 90% owned by Stagecoach, founder and chairman the odious Brian Souter. Stagecoach also operate East Midlands Trains and own 49% of Virgin Trains West Coast meaning they basically control all important long distance trains from London to the north. JohnSmith, the great british hacks and Corbyn don't appear to have grasped this. Stagecoach also own Megabus so your options for heading north are getting smaller. Stagecoach has just lost the SouthWest Trains franchise, another one famous for overcrowding

Daniel said...

You say that fares were cheaper when the lines were publicly owned, but then you say that public ownership wouldn't provide any benefits?

Corbyn's complaint wasn't just that the train was full and people had to sit on the floor. It was that the train was full and people had to sit on the floor *and we've got the most expensive train fares in Europe*. I'm sure if he'd paid German prices for his train journey, he wouldn't be complaining about having to sit on the floor, because it'd still be good value for money.

And people are absolutely right to bash Richard Branson. He owns a large stake in that railway and he used his position to release carefully-curated private cctv images in order to damage the reputation of the guy who would see his profits being cut (not just from his railways, but also from Virgin Healthcare and others). He conjured-up a political stick for the right-wing media to bash Corbyn with, and he did so purely out of parasitic self-interest.

I usually find your articles very well-constructed and informative, but this is a mess. Who is it directed at and why? What's the point of it?

Tim Fenton said...


Let me take this nice and slowly.

Virgin's stake in VTEC is 10%. The controlling stake belongs to Stagecoach, who own the other 90%.

Who released the first images I don't know - the assumption is always that Branson is behind it, but look at who owns the lion's share of VTEC and maybe think again.

As for fares, their level, as the post stresses, is a political decision - successive Governments, starting with the Blair administration, decided that those who travelled by train should pay a greater proportion of the costs of running the service.

If VTEC, or any other franchise, were taken over by a Government run operator, the most that could be expected from a fare cut would be a one-off 3% reduction - that being the margin to which those operators typically work.

Other countries may charge less for walk-up fares because the political decision has been made not to demand that the travelling public shoulder more of the cost.

As Steve B has pointed out, the Virgin name does not mean Branson is running it - not even the airline, where he now has a minority stake.

The post is directed at all those who think Richard Branson owns 100% of anything called Virgin, all those who think re-nationalising the railways will alleviate overcrowding at busy times, and all those who believe everything the media feeds them.

You're welcome.

SteveB said...

"I'm sure if he'd paid German prices for his train journey, he wouldn't be complaining about having to sit on the floor, because it'd still be good value for money." Total unmitigated crap, read the german papers about german trains, and for that matter swiss papers about swiss trains. They all moan.

Britain has a turn up and go railway where people can buy tickets without any guarantee of a seats (like Switzerland, like Germany since they ended compulsory reservations). The trains companies would love compulsory reservations and airline style dynamic pricing (so you buy the first seat on the Friday 19:00 to Edinburgh and it costs £20, buy the last it costs £300, and after that everyone else who wanted a ticket makes other plans for the weekend because they don't get past checkin). In France you have to reserve for long distance trains, on SOME tickets you can alter your reservation but even so called flexible tickets you lose your money if you miss the train and don't rebook fast enough. Under the french system Corbyn would have been completely stuffed, yes he may have paid less for his ticket but he admits he missed that train (on which he had a reservation) and turned up later for a busy train. So even if he was still permitted a change of reservation it wouldn't have been on that train.

And remember it was shown that Corbyn walked past empty seats before starting his moan. The company released the video perefectly reasonably (and it would have been a middle ranking manager that did it, not some billionaire you've never heard of). Corbyn lied, they defended themselves - simple.

Daniel said...

1) Everybody knows that the Virgin name is leased out and that Richard Branson doesn't own everything Virgin outright. He is the chairman of Virgin Group though (presumably with a majority stake or at least a very large stake -the ownership is deliberately opaque), and Virgin Group do own 10% of VTEC. Seeing that (a) his company owns 10% of it, and (b) he's the willing figurehead of everything Virgin, I'd say it was perfectly appropriate to "bash" him about it. Maybe not as appropriate as it would be to bash him about Virgin Care (also a target of Corbyn's, 100% owned by Virgin Group), but still far from pointless.

2) Richard Branson personally started Traingate with this tweet: https://mobile.twitter.com/richardbranson/status/768070742135152640?lang=en

3) Those seats clearly had reservations or *actual people* in them, as the video from Double Down News shows. It also shows that other passengers had resorted to sitting on the floor. Did you even watch it? And he never actually mentioned Virgin at all, so you can hardly say that VTEC were defending themselves.

This was a clear hit-job by a man with a significant vested interest in the character assassination of Jeremy Corbyn, and it's perfectly reasonable for people to "bash" him about it.

Also, SteveB, you should probably get your head out of Tim's arse - it's not a flattering look

I wonder if this comment will be approved...

Tim Fenton said...


Steve B is merely someone who has first hand experience of the rail industry. Abuse is not normally tolerated in the comments, but I will leave that one there, to illustrate the paucity of the argument being advanced.

The DDN video has not been disputed.

The central point remains: baying Branson is a pointless exercise.

You're once more welcome.

Daniel said...

SteveB clearly disputes the DDN video, probably without even watching it.

Branson started Traingate. He released the curated cctv images and he had a clear financial motive for doing so. Whether he owns 10% or 100% of the rail operator is irrelevant - it's perfectly appropriate and right for people to bash Branson over it. The only pointless exercise I see is this article.

You're welcome

SteveB said...

Thank you Tim, I've dealt with bigger arseholes than Daniel.

Branson didn't START the row. He responded to a lie from Corbyns team.

My point is that anyone who ignores an empty seat on a train because it has a label on it which they are too stupid or lazy to read deserves to sit on the piss soaked carpet outside the toilet. Or maybe they are amongst the millions of British people who are so ignorant of british geography that they can't work out which order the stops are in and don't know which bits of the journey the seats are available for.

I don't dispute that people were sat on the floor, why they are doing it is what is questioned. Some people were born to sit on the floor, some were dumbed down by use of anti-social media or reading tabloids, and some of us are quite happy to climb over them and find an empty seat.

I've been saying it since BR days, passengers should take an aptitude test before they can buy a ticket. And do it with pen and paper, that will sift a few out.

Daniel said...

Wow SteveB, that's quite the misplaced sense of superiority you've got there. Some people were born to sit on the floor, eh?

And Corbyn never lied. The train was full and the "empty" seats either had people in or had reservations. Corbyn probably could have gotten a seat if he'd looked hard enough and had memorized the order of every single train station on the line - like you obviously have - but it's perfectly reasonable that he should want to sit with his wife and advisors. His point was never to complain about his own personal experience of train travel (as a privileged man), but to highlight the experiences of normal rail passengers all over the UK. He was even offered a seat in first class but he refused it out of principle. He didn't even need to take the train at all - he could've just taken a private helicopter across the country like Theresa May does. He was highlighting the normal, proletariat experience of intercity travel. You are seriously missing the point here and you're embarrassing yourself.

Branson started the row, and he started it by lying.