It looks like the Conservative government may have drawn inspiration from Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘traingate’ saga last year. Or possibly not. But either way, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has announced a rather bold move regarding rail travel; especially for a Tory-led government.
No more sardines?
Grayling has announced that new rail franchises will be required to abolish first class carriages on busy suburban routes. The government hopes it will free up space on busy commuter routes, as figures show that overcrowding [pdf p6] on trains at rush hour in 2015 was 3.8%. It was worse in London, with overcrowding [pdf p6] at 5.8% in the morning rush hour, and 2.8% in the evening. Passengers faced the most [pdf p6] overcrowding at Blackfriars station in the morning, at nearly 15%.
The problems with rail overcrowding, especially the class divisions, were highlighted by Corbyn in August 2016. The Labour leader was forced to stand on part of a Virgin Trains journey, as there were no free seats next to each other in standard class. He eventually was given seats, but the media storm surrounding it became the story itself.
The press were accused of manipulating the story to make Corbyn look bad, and using it to bury other bad news. Also, the story prompted a backlash by angry passengers against Richard Branson and Virgin Trains.
So, it’s almost as if the Transport Secretary has ‘traingate’ in mind when taking this decision. He told [paywall] The Telegraph:
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I absolutely understand what a total pain it is if you are standing on a train for 20-30 minutes on the way to work. I don’t really see a case for a non-longer distance journey for there to be any division between first and second class. There should just be one class on the train.
But the government’s announcement may be cold comfort to most rail passengers. Because the UK rail network is still in a perpetual state of chaos:
- Regulated fares went up by 1.9% in January. They have increased by 56% in the past decade; meaning commuters may now pay up to 14% of their wages on travel. In Germany, France and Spain this figure is 2%-4%.
- Train punctuality in 2016 was the worst in a decade. One in every 10 trains was late.
- Passenger satisfaction with how railway operators handle complaints has not improved in a decade.
- A passenger group is currently taking the government to court over the Southern Rail crisis.
- The past year has been hit by numerous rail strikes.
- Disabled people are currently fighting the government over inadequate rail access.
The partial abolition of first class carriages is a welcome move. But, in the grand scheme of things, it is a token measure against a backdrop of a dilapidated and floundering UK rail network. If the measure of privatisation’s success was train services in Britain, then it has been an absolute failure. The call for re-nationalisation of our rail network should be stronger than ever.
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