Mark Steel: The joys of a crushed commuter train

People would get the midday train, but chose the 8.16 to enjoy the thrill of gradual paralysis
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The Association of Train Operating Companies must have had such a laugh coming up with their solution to overcrowding on the trains, which is to introduce congestion charging on the busiest lines. So road charging will force people off roads on to trains, and this will force them back again.

Then they can both keep raising the charges, forcing everyone back and forth, until eventually the train companies announce: "To preserve the smooth running of our service on certain popular lines, we are introducing random torture throughout the carriages. Guards will be issued with cattle prods, electrodes, and in first class a reclining rack, to be administered to encourage customers to switch to off-peak services."

Maybe all commuters will have to go by bike, until the privatised cycling lane companies decide their routes are so clogged up at peak hours, that between 8am and 10am they'll cover them in broken glass.

The true genius is in the way they explain the overcrowding as due to commuter services being "popular and successful". You might imagine the reason trains are packed in the morning is because no one on them has any bloody choice. But apparently it's because this time is "popular".

People would get the midday train, but choose the 8.16am to enjoy the thrill of being gradually paralysed as the nerve endings in their back are jammed against the edge of a lawyer's laptop. Then they hang around feeding pigeons all day until it's time to refresh themselves on the 5.28pm back, embedded in the sweat of an accountant with a cheeseburger.

If Network South-East were in charge of the rescue mission from Dunkirk, they'd have charged two grand a trip and said: "But cross-channel travel was extremely popular that day, which shows how successful our service was. So in the afternoon we put it up to five grand, to encourage customers to wait for the off-peak period."

Perhaps the extra charging should be payable by the minute. Then a Network South-East spokesman will say: "The 7.49 this morning was so popular that people stayed on it for an extra 45 minutes while it was stuck outside London Bridge due to signal failure. So we've charged them all double."

The other inventive use of logic is the insistence that extra charging is essential because the "taxpayer" can't be expected to cough up for rail users. As if no taxpayer ever uses the railway, because taxpayers and rail users are two separate clans who've been feuding for 800 years, and the taxpaying tribes live on tops of mountains or under the sea where no line can be built, and they're sick of shelling out so that rail-using parasites can enjoy a subsidised afternoon waiting for a train that never arrives because the track's melted.

But the rail congestion issue is about more than railways. The argument for extra charging has been presented as a necessity. As the BBC news reporter said, it's simply to comply with the laws of economics. Too many people require a service, so the price has to go up to discourage some of them, and you can no more withstand it than defy the laws of physics.

Maybe they tried, and the board of Midlands Trains will announce: "We had a go at putting prices down and only taking half our bonus but the money went 'zap', straight back into our account. It's something to do with electro-magnetism."

Similarly, one major cause of transport congestion is that house prices are subject to the magic of economics, forcing people to live further and further away from their work. If there was some planning, then essential people could live in the most convenient places. For example, Buckingham Palace could be let out to teachers and firefighters, and the Queen, who rarely has to do anything essential before 11am could commute in every morning from Hemel Hempstead.

This is the problem with the way capitalism is presented in general. It's based around the assumption that the consumer "chooses" certain goods and services. The ones chosen see their price rise, and the ones unsold see their price fall to reflect demand. Which is why their view of poverty is something like "In certain parts of Africa, the customer chooses not to spend his or her money on the market price for clean water or medicine, but would rather die of dysentery".

Incidentally, I'm having a break from writing this column for a few months. So here are my opinions in advance. Of course the Olympics have gone to Paris. It was the police who started the trouble at Gleneagles. Saddam must know something embarrassing to have got off with 40 hours community service.

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