You’re sitting in standard class on a train journey from London to Edinburgh, and it’s rammed. The man whose elbow keeps digging into yours is eating chips, and the grease is making you feel sick. You keep bumping legs with the man opposite. The woman sitting next to him is listening to music, with headphones seemingly designed to emit a tinny, irritating beat. And this is only the start. You’ve got five hours left to go.
Virgin Trains East Coast wants to offer you a way out of this hellhole. Disgruntled standard class passengers can now bid for an upgrade to first class, where they can stretch out their legs, log in to the free wifi, proffer their glass for a top up of wine and look forward to their complimentary dinner. Prices start at just £5. According to the company’s commercial director, this will allow passengers a chance to “treat themselves”. The chief executive of Seatfrog, Iain Griffin, which runs the bidding platform, said it gave passengers “the chance to get a really good deal”.
I can only assume Iain is a man who has never caught a Virgin Trains East Coast train before. Let’s assume you’re able to plan ahead. An advance ticket for a train leaving London on Wednesday 11 October at 7pm and returning at 7.35pm on Friday will set you back £72.50. That’s the cheapest option. Or you can catch the Megabus, which takes more than 9 hours to get there. In fact, the price varies wildly. Buy a similar journey next week, and the cheapest tickets cost £102.50.
What riles the true East Coaster is also that it wasn’t always this way. During the golden age, 2009 to 2015, East Coast was managed by the government (yes, nationalised trains), and it had a generous loyalty programme, which allowed frequent travellers to trade points for full train journeys. It was still pricey (and profitable for the government), but regular customers felt valued, and there was a vigorous campaign to stop the government handing the franchise to Virgin Trains.
Virgin promptly switched the loyalty scheme to Nectar. As the campaign group Save East Coast Rewards pointed out at the time, a £255 spend that once earned you a free train ticket now merely bought a sandwich. Not only that, but travellers complained that the cheapest advance tickets were harder to get hold of.
It is already common for the East Coast traveller sitting in a packed train to be serenaded by announcements that the First Class carriages are spacious and empty. With First Class carriages taking up a third of all carriages on some journeys, there seems to me a more obvious solution – abolish First Class.
Over the years, and especially during the golden age of nationalisation, I did occasionally find it worth my while to upgrade and drink wine for five hours straight. For £5 extra, it is great. One time, before it was abolished, I even had dinner in the buffet car. But £5 is the minimum starting bid, not the maximum, and frankly, I don’t need to “treat myself” when I travel by Virgin Trains East Coast. Every time I pay more than £100 for a train to go home to visit my family in Edinburgh, I’m spending more than I would do for any other luxury.