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.