Does this man’s ego know no bounds? Believe it or not, a senior minister of state, who should be concerning himself with making amends for the failed HS2 to Leeds and dealing with the death toll of smart motorways, has taken part in a bizarre promotional video for the Department of Transport.
He might think he looks cool in his sunglasses and North Face jacket, but he comes across like a low-rent Chris Packham, rucksack slung over his shoulder, uttering a string of cliches about the virtues of travelling by train to promote this new government-backed train fares discount scheme, offering up to one million advance tickets at up to 50 per cent off normal prices.
Has Shapps ever tried to do the journey from where I live, Barnsley, to Kendal in Cumbria, by train? It takes, according to official source, Trainline, an average of five hours and 14 minutes, and that’s assuming there are no delays or cancelled trains. It’s less half that time – two hours and 21 minutes – by road.
Sadly – and believe me, I’ll always try and find an alternative to getting behind my own wheel – I can think of nowhere quicker and more convenient to reach by train than road from where I live, except, perhaps, at a push, London. And even with the cost of diesel skyrocketing, invariably it’s more expensive than by car, especially if a trip is spontaneous and not planned weeks in advance.
I’ll give you a tip however; the Megabus service, beloved by students, offers not just coach travel, but discounted train fares all year round, and not just for a cynical window between school holidays, as this government promotion does.
What a load of nonsense it really is, obviously a cynical pre-local election ruse, an ill-judged attempt to show that Boris Johnson’s Government gives not takes. It’s all very off-key. The script for the advert reveals rather more than perhaps it intended to; Shapps insinuates that none of us have been anywhere for two years, “living life virtually”. Clearly, he was on holiday elsewhere when Britain’s beaches were bursting at the seams and fights were breaking out over ice creams for the last two summers.
And worse. This ruse is an absolute kick in the teeth for anyone who is obliged to travel by creaking rail transport regularly, as a commuter. As Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh says, these discounts will be “small comfort to passengers” after constant ticket price hikes.
“A decade of brutal Tory fare hikes have priced people off our railways,” she points out. “This temporary respite will be small comfort to passengers who had thousands taken out of their pockets from soaring fares since 2010.”
It was only in March that the highest train fare rises for nine years came into force for rail travellers in England and Wales; a rise by up to 3.8 per cent, covering around half of fares and including season tickets on most commuter routes. The TUC union rightly said it would “make it harder for city centres to bounce back” from Covid. That’s where the Secretary of State should be focusing his attention, not on jollies.
It seems odd timing, local elections and Boris Johnson’s sticky situation aside, given that most UK households are facing an unprecedented cost of living crisis, with fuel bills and mortgage rates soaring and precious little left in the kitty for pointless train trips to Penzance. And it’s even more galling for anyone who is disabled. People with limited mobility find that too often trains are inaccessible, over-crowded and lacking in assistance due to skeleton staffing.
Speaking out on Twitter, Dr Hannah Barham-Brown, campaigner for disability rights and deputy leader of the Women’s Equality Party, highlights the difficulty of travelling by train when you’re in a wheelchair. Trains are so over-crowded, she says, and luggage racks so overflowing, there is no room for manoeuvre at all. I don’t suppose Shapps considers, when he’s exhorting more people to travel by train, that capacity might already be limited and if the offer of his one million discounted tickets is taken up, it will make matters worse?
The official Department of Transport guidance says that people with access issues should seek help at a manned train station. If you live anywhere outside a major town or city centre in Yorkshire, you’ll know that some stations haven’t seen a real live member of staff since Dr Beeching took his axe to the tracks in the 1960s.
By rights, with concern over climate change and the rising cost of motoring, the train should be providing a viable, accessible and affordable alternative, day-in, day-out, year-round.
Sadly, however, this latest Grant Shapps gimmick is nothing but an annoying diversion.