The things those slippery bastards say…

THE things those slippery bastards say (part 153). As train fares rise again, this time by an average of 2.3%, fares on Virgin Trains East Coast will increase by 4.9%. Only it’s not a rise of more than double the average. Don’t let your fact-seeing eyes deceive you. That rise isn’t a rise at all. Virgin Trains is only tackling “historical anomalies” – a phrase that comes so greased with slippery-bastard-ness that it almost slips through your fingers.

Is this the anomaly that once train were reasonably cheap? That was a long time ago, it’s true. From January, an off-peak single from London to Newcastle will set you back £130.70. Do you get a share in the company for that? Nope, and you might not even get a seat.

Perhaps the “historical anomalies” include the fact that the line was put back in public hands after National Express failed to stump up its whopping franchise bill. East Coast ran the line for five years as a public entity, and most people seemed happy enough with that arrangement.

When Virgin and Stagecoach took over, the then Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, a man with a passing resemblance to the Fat Controller, said: “This is a fantastic deal for passengers and for staff on this vital route. It gives passengers more seats, more services and new trains. I believe Stagecoach and Virgin will not only deliver for customers but also for the British taxpayer.”

The same taxpayer who was already receiving the profit from the state-owned East Coast.

Mind you, I have never really understood rail privatisation, John Major’s parting gift to the country when he went off to spend more time with his copies of Wisden. Are train services better or worse than they were and is there a non-slippery-bastard way of measuring that? Has rail privatisation saved us money or cost us money? Again, who knows.

McLoughlin has moved on to spend more time in the cake queue. His successor is Chris Grayling, a man followed wherever he goes by a cloud of smug annoyingness. Grayling says today: “I intend to start bringing back together the operation of track and train on our railways”, adding: “In my experience passengers don’t understand the division between the two.”

This may well be true. In my experience, passengers don’t understand anything much about rail privatisation and who owns or does what.

Grayling wants each rail franchise to be jointly run by the train operating company and Network Rail. He also says today that passengers “just want someone to be in charge. They want their train to work. I agree with them”.

Plain and simple words without a coating of slippery-bastard-ness. But is the intention behind those words slippery? Grayling has made a statement so glaringly obvious that no one could disagree with it; the tricky part is whether his plans will make any difference, or end up criss-crossed with more complications than Clapham Junction.

It’s easy to come up with these statements. “People just want there to be a road to drive on when they get in their car. I agree with them.” “People just want there to be air for them to breathe. I agree with them.” “People just want politicians to stop talking to them as if they were five years old. I agree with them, but if you don’t stop fidgeting, playtime is banned today.”

The story about sharp fare increases being the correction of an historical anomaly sat on the page next to one with the headline: “Osborne unabashed at being paid £320,000 to give five speeches.”

Former chancellor George Osborne said his US tour speaking to bankers was normal behaviour: “It’s not different from what previous chancellors have done, Labour and Conservative. The difference is that it’s disclosed. And I think that’s a positive step forward.”

Well, that’s one way of putting a gloss on how our politicians sometimes hoover up lottery-style winnings thanks to the job they did for us. It’s tempting to say that ‘Unabashed’ is George Osborne’s middle name. His real name, as we all know, is Gideon, but you can’t blame him for having preferred George since the age of 13. His public-school mates are said to have called him “Giddy”. And now it is his bank balance that is giddy. As well as our envy.

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