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  1. The Staggers
23 May 2023

Dropping train wi-fi is symbolic of our miserable, pinched country

Why would a Tory Treasury encourage passengers by making services better, when it could save money instead?

By Jonn Elledge

Treasury Brain is a crippling psychological condition that leaves its victims tragically unable to read both sides of a balance sheet. So impaired are sufferers’ decision-making that it’s only a matter of time before one sells their home to cut down on heating bills.

There is currently an outbreak at the Department for Transport (DfT), which is engaged in an extensive programme of making Britain’s railways very slightly cheaper, at the tiny cost of making the experience of travelling on them significantly worse. The latest edict from the department to rail operators, as reported by the one-time London mayoral candidate Christian Wolmar on the Calling All Stations podcast, is that they should stop offering wi-fi unless they can justify it financially. “Our railways are currently not financially sustainable, and it is unfair to continue asking taxpayers to foot the bill,” a government spokesperson told the Guardian in response to the story. “Passenger surveys consistently show that on-train wi-fi is low on their list of priorities.”

That may well be true: if someone asked me my top priorities for a functioning railway, I doubt I’d say “wi-fi” and more likely opt “for water to come out of the tap in the loos when I press the button”. Both these are things whose absence, however, feels immensely irritating, and if a decent internet connection doesn’t occupy the same rank on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as functional plumbing it’s still useful if you’re the sort of person who travels a lot for work, or, hey, if you’re the sort of person who just wants to watch a video on their phone.

All this fits into a pattern of budget squeezes that has also featured numerous cuts to services and frequencies, as the end of the franchise system has allowed the Treasury to tighten its grip. This always felt an odd sort of way to run a railway, even when passenger numbers were still below pre-pandemic levels thanks to the rise of working from home – if you want to attract more passengers, wouldn’t you make services better? But now the numbers are at an all-time high it looks actively bizarre. I’m beginning to suspect that Rishi Sunak, who takes private jets whenever he can – who has gutted HS2, and last week dropped Boris Johnson-era plans for significant railway reform – just doesn’t like trains. (I bet you anything there’s wi-fi on those planes.)

Losing wi-fi is not as big a blow as losing services, but it feels sort of symbolic of the miserable, pinched country that Treasury Brain is creating. Other countries invest in their infrastructure and public realm; their railway networks use on-board wi-fi as a selling point. Here, though, we deal not in assets but in costs, and the possibility it might be worth spending money to make things a little bit better is as baffling to the government as the idea that more railway journeys might be seen as a good thing. In Tory Britain, everything, in every way, must constantly be getting worse. But it might also cost the state less money. So who’s to say whether it’s good or bad?

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[See also: Can nationalisation by stealth save Britain’s railways?]

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