The magic of railway travel. Our trains do not deserve the uniformly bad press they receive – not quite. But yesterday’s breaking news headline appeared to offer promising material for satirists: “Third-Class rail travel to return”.
Back to the 50s! If you’re going to have to stand for 90 minutes anyway, then yes, it would be wonderful to pay less for the privilege. How, though, could we create truly “third-class” conditions on our already packed commuter trains? Perhaps imitate India’s “human pyramid” carriages, blanketed with hundreds of people? Would passengers soon have to pay to use the mobile pit latrines that can pass as lavatories? Will those coffee kiosks at railway stations lease goats and chickens to rush-hour travellers, to help create a more authentic ambience?
The news was buried in Department for Transport bid papers for the imminent reprivatisation of the East Coast line from London to Aberdeen. Ministers like the idea of letting train operators enjoy similar flexibility to airlines in selling tickets. But the Department anxiously rushed out a denial last night, insisting that any new classification would be intermediate, existing between First Class and Standard (guaranteed seat, bit more legroom) – and that Standard class will not be allowed to deteriorate. The RMT union, represented through the excitable Bob Crow, argues that is tantamount to relegating Standard to Third Class – and that operators can’t be trusted not to run down Standard in pursuit of profit.
Rail travel in Britain should be more popular. Privatisation of our trains has improved the punctuality and quality of some services – but only at eye-watering cost to the public, through state subsidies and offensive ticket price rises. Until government gets a grip on the cost, we’re unlikely to see much of a revolution in our rail habits.