Here is where I will post my various thoughts, jokes, poems, opinions, maybe even some political articles, when I find the f*cking time anyway.
Enough is Enough. There needs to be huge overhaul of our rail networks NOW.
It’s currently 00.06 on the 25 of July 2019. I sit on a West Midlands Rail train from Rugby to London Euston. I will be back on a train tomorrow morning to go to Edinburgh. Having just done a preview of my Edinburgh Show at the Fat Penguin Comedy Club @ The Patrick Kavanaugh (If I’m going to write an article trashing bad business, I’m going to promote any aspect of good business I see: check it out, great club, great line ups!), I was meant to catch the 21.54pm train from Birmingham New Street to London Euston. I get to the station to be informed by the departure board the 21.54pm is cancelled. With no staff at the station, and no announcement (at least which to my ears was audible), I looked on the departure board for the next available train: 22.10pm, which was of course delayed (but only to 22.12pm). They didn’t show the platform for the train until 22.06pm. After sprinting to make this train, I thought that’s the end of the ordeal. Given how much I travel on public transport with my job, and given how much has gone wrong for me on previous journeys: I think to myself, ‘I’ve been quite fortunate today’.
How wrong I was. Just before Rugby, the train inspector: Steve, a bald man with glasses asks for my ticket (Now I’m no fan of this cancel culture where people are held up and vilified by hundreds, sometimes thousands of voices on social media for one thing they’ve done wrong, but I imagine this is something Steven does every day, and I want Virgin Trains to know which member of their staff acted so callously). I inform him that I was booked on the 21.54pm which was cancelled, and thus I have got the next available train. He tells me that this isn’t a West Midlands Train. I ask him what this means.
He replies that ‘Well essentially they’re EasyJet, and we’re British Airways.’
He laughs at his own joke, perhaps unaware that he’s talking to a stand-up comedian, perhaps unaware he’s talking to someone with a rudimentary grasp of humour, perhaps unaware what he said wasn’t even a joke, but a simple analogy and total piece of sh*te one as well. Can you tell I’m raging?
I say ‘So what does that mean? I don’t have the money to buy a new ticket’ (In my bank, I did have enough money to buy a new ticket, even if it’s the extortionate on the day prices they charge, however having done my gig for a small fee from my gig, paying for a new ticket, would push this show from a minute] profit-making venture into a loss making one, which naturally is a boundary I’m not keen on crossing. This may seem irrelevant, but just this week, an act I know trying to break into the comedy circuit got his first paid weekend gig: £50 in Hull. Travelling from Manchester cost him £46.44.
Steven informs me ‘Then you’ll have to get off at the next stop, which is Rugby’
I protest: ‘Well I don’t know anyone in Rugby. What if I’m left I’m homeless?’
And the kicker: ‘That is not my responsibility’
Me, incredulous: ‘I’m sorry, what? It’s your responsibility to ensure I get home safely. If there are no staff to direct people at Birmingham New Street to the correct train, surely that’s your [as in Virgin Trains], West Midlands and Network Rails responsibility.’
Steven: ‘Network Rail doesn’t operate these trains’
Me: ‘Yes but they operate all the tracks, which you rent from them, and it’s still yours and their responsibility to inform passengers which correct train to get when theirs is cancelled. Look, at the, very least I need to know is if there’ll be a train at Rugby, cause otherwise I’m not getting off.’
Only upon prompting, did Steve decide to check for the next available train. After checking his tablet, he tells me ‘Yeah, 11 pm the next one is, but you do have to leave. If you stay on, you’ll be breaking the law’, and continues on with a smile and sense of smug pride reminiscent of that teacher who seemingly got a kick out of screaming at classmates that hadn’t done their homework until they werein tears, but then when you left school, it turns out said teacher was a massive paedo. I’m not saying Steve’s a paedo: that would be libel. I’m just saying I think he reminds me of a paedo.
As he checks the next passengers ticket, several passengers including the one having his ticket checked complain about his treatment of me and implore him to let me stay on. He refuses all their endeavours. As I get up, I turn and tell Steve: ‘It’s not even a busy train. What you’re doing maybe legal, but in my opinion, you’re still acting very callously, very coldly, and very cruelly, and the fact you’re doing that just to make the 2.5 – 5% you make in commission is a disgrace.’
Steve replies with that trademark (swagger of a) paedo’s grin: ‘You’re entitled to your opinion’ and continues on his way.
Some of my friends have told me: maybe I should’ve videoed the whole thing. I should’ve, but I wasn’t expecting it to go down that route, and it happened so quickly, I didn’t think to get my camera out.
Some have told me I should have refused to get off the train but come on? I’m a man of colour who’s previously dealt with systemic racism from both the police and the crown prosecution service before. There is no way the police are reacting on a late Tuesday night to a report of ‘a brown man with a backpack without a ticket acting aggressively on public transport’ and I’m leaving that scenario the victim. And in fairness, there’s no need to racialize it either, a white guy my age isn’t being treat as a victim then either. I travel more than the average person and I’ve on previous trains seen a man who lost his ticket from Aberdeen to Newcastle but had the receipt refuse to buy a new ticket, and get arrested. I’ve seen a woman in tears who got the wrong train to Manchester from London on the way to her fathers funeral be told by the train guard ‘that he was so sorry, but he had to sell her a new ticket: company policy, otherwise she would be arrested’… just to get 2.5%.
When I got off the train at Rugby, I approached a man in a Virgin uniform on the platform. I tell him exactly what’s just happened, and even he makes a face that say’s ‘Yeah, to be honest, he’s acted a bit Over the Top there.’ I tell him his facial expressions suggest I’m right to be angry. He tells me ‘Look you want to get home right, well your train is leaving on platform 2 in literally 1 minute, so you best sprint there now’. So, I sprint to what I assume is the correct platform, and just make the train by the skin of my teeth and, I hear an announcement ‘Welcome to this delayed 22.15 train to Liverpool Lime Street.’
I drop to my knees, heartbroken. After all this, I’m to end up stranded in bleeding Liverpool: Nowhere near my home in London, and my train from London to Edinburgh tomorrow, how do I get that, and if I can’t get my train to Edinburgh, I can’t do my gig in Hamilton, which means I can’t then get my train to Manchester on Friday to get to my gig in Mold, which means I can’t get to my subsequent gigs in York and Sheffield. I could perhaps get a train from Liverpool to Edinburgh the morning after, and get a hotel that night. At the time of writing: a train from Liverpool to Edinburgh is £72.45, and a hotel is £30 (which is surprisingly cheap in fairness) but would again turn both the Birmingham gig and the following Hamilton gig into loss making enterprises. And would West Midlands, Virgin Trains, Network Rail refund the £102.45 they forced me to spend due to their own incompetence, due to the fact none of them are accountable and can pass the buck from one company to another in an endless cycle of blameless exploitation?
‘Would they f*ck’ I’d say
‘You’re entitled to your opinion’ Steve would say.
Now after seeing my distraught reaction, a couple of other passengers inform me that in fact the announcements are wrong, and this train is heading to London Euston. It will get in at around 1am, instead of the 00.25 I was meant to get in which got me home in time to get the 18-minute tube journey home.
I end up challenging the train guard of this West Midlands service on this. As he comes through, I tell him of my ordeal, how livid I am about it all, and I enquire about them perhaps getting me a taxi when I get to Euston, cause the night bus means I have to wait 30 minutes to get and then takes an hour, adding an extra 90 minutes onto a journey already delayed by 45. Now to Michael and West Midlands credit, they handled this entire situation sublimely. Michael sat down, listened to what I had to say, and treat me unlike Steve as a human being, not just a cash cow, and agreed that the Virgin Trains inspector had acted unnecessarily heavy-handed, and that his joke was pure shite. He also informed me that Steve was incorrect, and the next train wasn’t 11pm, and this train I was on was in fact the last train from Rugby headed to London Euston, and if I had missed it (remember that I had to sprint and just made it with a second to spare), I would have been stranded in Rugby till 5.16am, when the next train left. We got to Euston at 00.55, and after a chat with the West Midland staff there: they told me that if I order a taxi, they’ll guarantee that if I complain, they’ll refund both the train journey and the taxi itself (which in the immediate cost me £18.99), so as aforementioned fair play to West Midlands Rail. Some train companies take account of when things go wrong, and my battle is not with them.
Now, let’s say I had been stranded in Rugby… what happens if I was a teenage girl? No. I’m sure the staff at Virgin, or any train company would be a bit more understanding than to leave a teenage girl stranded? Well in December 2017, James Timpson (of the Shoe Repair Company) lashed out at rail staff at Euston for rejecting his 15-year-old daughters ticket citing she didn’t look young enough to be a child and took her ticket off her!1 What evidence did they have for this? Just her looks. And what evidence did she have to challenge their inaccurate claims? 15-year olds wouldn’t be wise to take their passports out with them every day, and you don’t get a driving license till 17?So, there she was left: a 15 year old girl stranded at London Euston, not being allowed to go home and being accused of being both a liar and a criminal. But which company could be so cold, so callous, so cruel? Again: it was Virgin who operate most lines going in and out of Euston.
What happens if it was someone with learning difficulties? Or someone physically challenged? Well comedian: Tanya Lee Davis (whose limited to a mobility scooter) has passionately spoke of her humiliation been left stranded on several occasions by multiple train companies, with one particularly sickening story where she was threatened with arrest, screamed at and humiliated to the point of tears by train staff on a Great Western Rail service. Great Western Rail apologised and Tanya subsequently rejected their apology. The show goes on.2
Now I don’t know who has the right of it. Steven might have been right with his train times, maybe Michael, but I’ve dealt with this sort of shithousery for a decade as a Stand-up comedian travelling from city to city, and I don’t want to spend any more time checking train tickets. This consumer exploitation is rampant in our rail system, and If I was to list them all, this article would never end, but whether it be train companies giving you half the money you paid if their service is 30 minutes late, and you having to pay 10 x the price of your original ticket cause you were on time for your train but only by a minute and their doors shut early, or train companies having a readily available database of everyone with railcards, but still charging people for full price tickets for anyone whose forgot theirs, or whether it be them manipulatively pushing you to book early to get the cheapest tickets, but then not allowing you at all or making it deliberately as difficult as possible to either change, or get your ticket refunded, it never stops.
But, I know the trains inside out. I’ve travelled on them for 10 years, on average about four a week. I cannot imagine how much of my disposable income has been spent on trains and even I’m still after all this, I’ve still been caught out by this little bit of exploitation I was unaware of? What about consumers who don’t know the rails as well as me, being made to feel like criminals up and down the country, being exploited, and downright robbed? What about all the children who aren’t the daughters of millionaires who’ve been left stranded in a strange city with no one they know, and no money to get home, and a train guard saying ‘It’s not my responsibility’, whose parents aren’t wealthy or relevant enough to have this injustice turned into a news story? What about all the disabled people who’ve been left stranded or humiliated by train staff, who weren’t comedians and didn’t have a vehicle, or simply didn’t know that they could speak up?
Just this weekend alone, I’ve spent £126.45 on trains. Can you imagine where else that disposable income could’ve gone: a pub, on food, on a new and interesting start up, put aside towards my mortgage? That is roughly 33% of my monthly rent I pay in London and was 57% of the rent I was paying in Manchester and I’m spending that just to get to my job. When neoliberal economics of Thatcher was brought in during the late 70’s and early 80’s, the central justification was that it was an empirical way of increasing efficiency, consumer choice that would make things easier, cheaper and more efficient for us: The consumer. So how, has one of the flagship policies of Thatcherism, as unpopular now as it was then lead to an entire industry central to the functioning of this country becoming one of the most confusing, exploitative and expensive industries for the consumer, with no one company or person accountable? Adam Smith would be rolling in his grave.
Look. I’m a capitalist. Like Thatcher: I am the son of a corner shop owner. If Tescos, Sainsubrys & Morrisons get together tomorrow and set the price of food sky high, someone like my dad or anybody can set up a corner shop, sell food at a reasonable price, and either the big supermarkets go bankrupt, or lower their food prices. But with trains, this isn’t possible, as trains operate in an oligopoly market where a small number of firms can set their prices as high as they want, with barriers to entry for new firms, because if you’re peeved about the price, you’re only choices are to: get the Megabus (In my experience a far more reliable and honest mode of transport than the train), save up for a car, or build your own tracks,
Now I understand organising a multifaceted rail system around the country is quite a complex project to undergo but why can’t we have a fixed-price train system like most European countries have? These systems are by and large nationalised, efficient, cheap and are at a fixed price, so with no anxiety: you can turn up, buy a ticket on the day, and if you miss your train by chance, get the next one with the same ticket. The positive externalities of people being able to afford to travel from city to city, town to city, town to village for job interviews, for work, would be a huge injection to economic growth never mind the increase from how much more disposable income have. The profits the rail network makes then goes back into updating and modernising a long-dated system: Northern Pacer Trains have been in operation for 40 years. Speaking of which, the reason I moved out of Manchester, was because of how bad it was getting in and out the city on Northern. Can you imagine what the entire North Wests economic growth would be like if you could actually navigate the North West in good time?
If Boris Johnson wants to unite the country, he could start by promising a radical overhaul of a system owned primarily by foreign (European ironically) governments who profit off our misery, and then use said profits to SUBSIDISE THEIR OWN RAIL NETWORKS that we’re all victims of. I’m not currently sat on a £50 train from London to Edinburgh because I think it’s a laugh. I’m sat on this train because I must go to Edinburgh to do my job. Public transport is a MEANS to an end, not an end which should be profited from, in itself, and we’d do well to remember that.
Richard Branson, I’m calling you out specifically. You claim to care about the arts. You’ve spoken about giving Mike Oldfield , the Sex Pistols, Culture Club, the Human League etc a platform, but do you take any responsibility at all for the fact you near enough single-handedly have helped deny a career in art, music and comedy to so many people in this country? Do you take any responsibility for the fact that since you (and others) took over these trains, and started charging your extortionate fees, and introduced your draconian policies to catch people out and siphon off as much of their disposable income as you can possibly get, that artists from Perth to Penzance have not been able to pursue their dream job. Live performers need access to affordable transport. They cannot survive in one city. They need to travel from place to place to make this an income, and so many have not been able because YOU priced them out. That’s what Virgin’s ‘brand’ represents’ to me and so many other creatives up and down the country, and I wonder given your history if that sits on your conscious at all? Or are you sat on your island with your conscious too full of the best way to continue privatizing the NHS, and whatever other basics humans rely on to survive? Will you reply to this article? Or if you do read it, will you just smile and think ‘You’re entitled to your opinion’.