Com­ment

Did Cor­byn re­ally think he had the only cam­era on the train?

Rail (UK) - - Contents - nigel.har­ris@bauer­me­dia.co.uk @RAIL

Nigel Har­ris de­liv­ers his thoughts on Jeremy Cor­byn’s #train­gate.

“The rail­way needs to pur­sue much more of this kind of en­gage­ment, not only in re­sponse to ‘events’ but also be­hind the scenes.”

OK, here we go. With Labour leader Jeremy Cor­byn’s # train­gate ker­fuf­fle still rag­ing, I have no al­ter­na­tive but to write about this sur­real po­lit­i­cal story. I do so in the full knowl­edge that hard­core Cor­byn sup­port­ers will start flam­ing me again. What­ever. I’ve lost count of the rude and of­fen­sive names I’ve been called this last cou­ple of days by those who refuse to be­lieve that Cor­byn is ca­pa­ble of dis­sem­bling, let alone ly­ing.

Ah. The ‘L’ word. This is to be used as a last re­sort, when it is un­equiv­o­cal. It is no or­di­nary word. You do not use it as you would the rest of the vo­cab­u­lary. It’s a lin­guis­tic ‘nuke’, a weapon of last re­sort. It re­ally ought to come with twin-key au­tho­ri­sa­tion be­fore you de­ploy it, for its mega-ton af­ter-ef­fects are in­vari­ably toxic, quite pos­si­bly fraught with le­gal dan­gers, and shot through with anger. Once the ‘L’ word is used, all hell breaks loose.

As # train­gate gath­ered strength on the af­ter­noon of Au­gust 23, Cor­byn was ac­cused on so­cial me­dia of ”..ut­ter in­com­pe­tence and barefaced lies,”... “straight talk­ing, hon­est ly­ing,”...... plus an ob­ser­va­tion that “straight talk­ing hon­est pol­i­tics is a lie” ....and they were just three ver­dicts from high-pro­file Labour fig­ures! The first com­ment was from ac­tress Frances Bar­ber, the sec­ond from for­mer Labour Rail Min­is­ter/Glas­gow South MP Tom Har­ris and the third from Labour MP Jess Phillips. I never thought I’d see the day when such high-pro­file and sin­cere fig­ures pointed fin­gers at their own party leader and un­leash that last-re­sort nu­clear ac­cu­sa­tion: “Liar!”

It’s ex­tra­or­di­nary, un­prece­dented and deeply wor­ry­ing. And it is cer­tainly rel­e­vant here, be­cause the rail­way’s fu­ture is too im­por­tant, too ex­pen­sive and too fraught with ex­ist­ing com­pli­ca­tions to be hurled into this seething po­lit­i­cal mael­strom. But we are where we are, so what ac­tu­ally hap­pened is im­por­tant.

And the facts of the mat­ter seem to be these. On Au­gust 11, Cor­byn’s party boarded the 1100 King’s Cross-New­cas­tle, seem­ingly on rather ex­pen­sive last-minute tick­ets. If Cor­byn’s of­fice had booked ad­vance tick­ets, they would have come with au­to­matic seat reser­va­tions and none of this would have hap­pened. CCTV sub­se­quently re­leased by Vir­gin shows the Cor­byn party at 1107, walk­ing past un­oc­cu­pied and un­re­served seats in Coach H and then re­served but un­oc­cu­pied seats in Coach F, be­fore oc­cu­py­ing a dis­tant vestibule to shoot the now in­fa­mous video crit­i­cis­ing the in­dus­try for over­crowd­ing and urg­ing na­tion­al­i­sa­tion. This re­port­edly took around a half hour, af­ter which Cor­byn took up a seat in Coach H, around 45 min­utes into the jour­ney .

It sim­ply wasn’t true that there were ‘no seats’. Oddly, there was si­lence from Cor­byn for sev­eral hours, then his story kept chang­ing, as even Labour lead­er­ship con­tender Owen Smith pointed out. There were no seats; there were seats but none to­gether; there were seats but they had lug­gage on them. Smith made it clear that Cor­byn was not forced (as he claimed), but chose to sit on the vestibule floor. Far from be­ing some kind of es­tab­lish­ment/me­dia con­spir­acy, Cor­byn’s most vo­cif­er­ous crit­ics were from his own party. Other crit­ics moved quickly from ir­ri­ta­tion at per­ceived de­cep­tion to mock­ery - and it is ar­guably more dam­ag­ing for a politi­cian to be laughed at than crit­i­cised. When in­tegrity evap­o­rates then cred­i­bil­ity in­evitably fol­lows.

On Au­gust 24, Cor­byn was tetchy and sneer­ing when Sky re­porter Dar­ren McCaf­frey tried to ques­tion him. We had the bizarre spec­ta­cle of a ma­jor party leader us­ing a video stunt to pro­mote a de­bate about rail and na­tion­al­i­sa­tion which he then re­fused to par­tic­i­pate in. Notwith­stand­ing the un­fail­ing sup­port of Cor­byn’s fans, the wider elec­torate will draw its own con­clu­sions.

Sug­ges­tions that there was some sort of con­spir­acy, or that Sir Richard Bran­son is “ab­so­lutely pet­ri­fied” by Cor­byn, are ris­i­ble. But the real worry is that daft dis­trac­tions like this mask some truths about na­tion­al­i­sa­tion which need to be aired and dis­cussed.

The two big­gest crit­i­cisms you of­ten hear about the rail­way are that it is over­crowded and that fares are too high. I agree. But na­tion­al­i­sa­tion will make these prob­lems worse. It is al­ready the Gov­ern­ment that is re­spon­si­ble for high fares - ei­ther through its reg­u­lated fares for­mula, or through fran­chise agree­ments which the Trea­sury sees as cash cows. And it is Gov­ern­ment which has forced the pas­sen­ger to pay half as much again as he or she used to com­pared with the tax­payer, who has paid 50% less since 2008. Where once it was 50/50, now pas­sen­gers pay 75% of fares and Gov­ern­ment 25%.

Na­tion­al­i­sa­tion would pave the way for this process to ac­cel­er­ate when a re­ver­sal is ideally needed. Not once have I heard any politi­cian cam­paign for low fares to even men­tion this. Also, con­trary to public opin­ion, train op­er­a­tors make a slen­der 2% profit and as Philip Haigh has shown, many op­er­a­tors do not pay a div­i­dend to share­hold­ers. Gov­ern­ment al­ready con­trols all these cru­cial fi­nan­cial mat­ters, so na­tion­al­i­sa­tion would change ab­so­lutely noth­ing.

Worse, those who cam­paign to ‘Bring Back BR’ should be care­ful what they wish for. BR’s most fre­quently-used ca­pac­ity man­age­ment tool was to hike fares by more than in­fla­tion to keep peo­ple off trains. On modernised routes fare in­creases were even higher. The ‘Bring Back BR‘ cam­paign beg­gars be­lief.

Do you also want to bring back BR’s ser­vice fre­quency on the East Coast and South­ern routes? You do? Ex­cel­lent! Let’s slash train fre­quency on both routes by at least 50%! Yes, you’d cut roughly half of to­day’s King’s CrossNew­cas­tle long-dis­tance or Brighton-Lon­don com­muter ser­vices. See what that does for train over­crowd­ing - but hey, it would solve Net­work Rail’s line ca­pac­ity prob­lem.

That is why I have such con­tempt for cheap stunts such as that pulled by Jeremy Cor­byn - such cyn­i­cal po­lit­i­cal game-play­ing masks the real is­sues, com­pro­mises es­sen­tial dis­cus­sion about ma­jor prob­lems, and makes their so­lu­tion less likely and costlier be­cause more heat and lit­tle light are the only out­comes. Pas­sen­gers de­serve bet­ter? You bet they do.

This has back­fired even in nar­row po­lit­i­cal terms. What­ever good they did, politi­cians are re­mem­bered for one or two things. John Ma­jor? The af­fair with Ed­wina Cur­rie. Tony Blair? Iraq. Gor­don Brown? Bolton’s Gil­lian Duffy. Nick Clegg? Tu­ition fees. I rather sus­pect this will be Jeremy Cor­byn’s al­ba­tross.

I com­mend Sir Richard Bran­son for hav­ing the co­jones to go out proac­tively to de­fend his brand and the rail­way. The rail­way needs to pur­sue much more of this kind of en­gage­ment, not only in re­sponse to ‘events’ but also be­hind the scenes. Oth­er­wise, non­sense no­tions will con­tinue to in­form the public view that na­tion­al­i­sa­tion is a so­lu­tion.

The rail­way needs to do what Sir Richard did - get out there, make the case, tackle ‘BS’ wher­ever it crops up and re­ally fight for rail.

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