Monday essay: Westminster Railways strikes again

A new offer of cheap rail travel was launched on 23 January, with the jaunty title of the ‘Great British Rail Sale’.

It is a long time since the organiser of this announcement, the Department for Transport, permitted the phrase ‘British Rail’ to be used in connection with the modern railway, but it had to happen in the end.

The Sale itself ran from 23 to 29 January, and offered ‘over a million discounted tickets’ to ‘destinations across England and Wales, as well as on cross-border trips into Scotland’, for journeys between 30 January and 15 March.

It was surely rather strange that such an offer should come from a government department at all. In the old days the Ministry of Transport (as it then was) would never have done such a thing on behalf of British Rail, which may have been a state-owned corporation but was mostly allowed to run its own business – up to a point. So while the British Railways Board may have been forced to negotiate (often in vain) for capital funds, ministers and civil servants never sold tickets on its behalf.

On the other hand, we are pleased to report in the February edition of Railnews (published Thursday) that legislation authorising Great British Railways is apparently going to make a first, timid appearance (for ‘pre-legislative scrutiny’, whatever that may be) in the present session of Parliament, but in the meantime our industry might as well be called Westminster Railways, and be done with it.

It is certainly Westminster Railways which is behind the latest silly attempt to reorganise ticketing on LNER, which is (of course) state-owned.

The new deal, which starts today, abolishes such things as ordinary off-peak returns, and makes it necessary for passengers to book ahead (even if only by five minutes) for anything except full-price Anytime travel. Booking ahead also means a compulsory reserved seat. If you don’t like the position you have been given by a blank bulkhead, facing backwards, tough luck. So much for the walk-up railway.

If HM Treasury (which is the underlying controller of Westminster Railways) had sat up all night trying to work out how to put people off from travelling by train, it could hardly have done better than this.

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