With the UK struggling back to work after the holiday season, the start of the New Year is a good time to reflect on others less fortunate than ourselves. Like commuters, for instance.
Every morning you’ll find them shivering on windswept suburban platforms, strafed by rain and wind. Little chance of taking refuge in a waiting room – nowadays, the best that can be hoped for is a canopy offering little protection from the rain.
Once aboard, the daily journey consists of standing like the proverbial sardine, while your train rumbles along congested tracks, the compartment fuggy with the odour of damp overcoat, and your ears assailed by the sound of fellow travellers alerting their work colleagues via their mobiles that they’ll be late – usually in a voice loud enough to be heard in the next county.
Well, this dubious daily pilgrimage will seem even less attractive to rail passengers now, after the various UK train operators announced yet another hike in fares, the fifth one in as many years.
This year’s increase may only be in line with inflation (3.1 per cent), but it has nonetheless catapulted many more commuters into the infamous 5,000 club: namely, those who have to spend more than £5,000 (Dh30,000) on their annual rail season ticket.
Yet even those who complain most bitterly about these price rises still cite overcrowding, rather than cost, as their primary grievance with rail travel. “It’s not the fares that make my blood boil”, explained one of them to me on Friday as we waited for our train, “It’s the fact I still can’t get a seat.”
In fairness, the current coalition government is reaping the whirlwind of nearly 50 years of chronic under-investment.
Our system, once the pride of the world, has been allowed to fall into such a state of decay and decrepitude that it became not so much a national treasure as a standing joke. Remedying these decades of neglect is proving an expensive business. Yet if overcrowding is indeed the thorniest issue facing the train companies, the solution may literally have been staring them in the face.
On any typical nine-carriage commuter train in Britain there will be 101 first-class and 526 standard (or second) class seats. This archaic segregation is a hangover from a previous era when such distinctions were part of the social fabric of the nation, but the divide still remains. Thus during peak travel times the standard sections are still a hopeless crush, while the more rarefied first-class compartments are tenanted only by the lucky few sufficiently well off to contemplate the eye-watering costs involved.
Some bright spark in Whitehall has spotted the potential of all this unused capacity, because this week the government announced an initiative to convert first class carriages (which are seldom more than two-thirds full) for use by the rest of us – thus freeing up seats and thereby cutting overcrowding at a stroke.
Patrick McLoughlin, the transport secretary, has confirmed that he is preparing to pay one train company, First Great Western (nicknamed Worst Late Western by many of its long-suffering customers) to dispense with a proportion of first-class seats, thus increasing overall capacity.
The best ideas are often the simplest, or so it’s said, and this initiative has been welcomed by rail users up and down the country as an example of the sort of lateral thinking all too rarely seen in politics: even if Stephen Hammond, the rail minister, displayed some good old shunting when questioned more precisely about the scheme.
“There are some new ideas we are looking at”, he confirmed, before continuing coyly “Is it going to happen? It may. It may not.”
If the poor put-upon commuter has anything to do with it, it certainly may. Nonetheless the scheme may not be as simple to administer as it sounds.
Even in the enlightened 21st century, any attempt to smudge the distinction between different social strata in this most complex of cultures is almost always fraught with unexpected trauma. We may think ourselves equal, but old social prejudices can soon assert themselves when privileges are threatened.
“Put three Englishmen on a desert island and within an hour they’ll have invented a class system”, wrote the playwright Alan Ayckbourn. The same, I fear, may be even more likely in a railway carriage.
Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London