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Britain Must Take Back Richard Branson’s Awful Trains

In 2017, pundits were shocked by Jeremy Corbyn's call to renationalize rail — and the broad public support that greeted it. You only need to board one of Richard Branson’s rolling torture chambers to see why.

Richard Branson launches at Liverpool Lime Street Station on March 13, 2012 in Liverpool, England. Tony Woolliscroft / Getty

There is sweat across my brow. I feel feverish, nauseous, and dizzy. I’m trapped in a confined space with dim lighting, making it difficult to survey my surroundings. The person seated in front of me is making a pathetic sound — “Urgh … ehh … urghh … argh…” — as though he’s dying. Another sneezes ostentatiously every few minutes, avoiding my murderous gaze. The air is dense with the acrid smell of human piss and shit, worsened by the pungent heat. The space in which I am trapped is packed with every possible assault on the senses, designed to irritate people so intensely, one further annoyance might instigate a full-scale riot.

It’s not a torture chamber, though it might as well be. It’s a Virgin Train — one of the privatized trains owned by billionaire Richard Branson, a man so full of hubris he once started a line of colas with his cartoon image emblazoned on the side; who became known in the 1990s for failed adventure expeditions, including an ill-fated balloon ride. His WiFi service is appalling, one of the worst-rated in the country, but it’s trains where Virgin’s shabbiness comes to the fore.

Virgin Trains were stripped of a franchise recently and blocked from bidding for further contracts. Branson attracted nationwide opprobrium last year for suing the NHS, in a move that seemed designed to cement his place as a pantomime villain of capitalism to rival the top-hatted character that graces Monopoly boards. Each time I board a Virgin Train, I’m enraged to the point that I mull becoming a single-issue voter, the issue being: “Will you put Richard Branson in prison?”

Trains in the United Kingdom are patchy and piecemeal: often the same routes have several different operators on the same tracks. Travelling from London to Birmingham recently, I was on a Chiltern Rail train rather than a Virgin train, and the journey took an hour longer as a result. Paying a little more, I could have reached my destination sooner, but would have been psychologically assaulted by Branson’s talking toilets. Train costs are exorbitant, despite so many people using them, and not finding a seat is common — as Jeremy Corbyn pointed out while campaigning in 2016.

I’ve been on a Northern Train on a journey to Scarborough in the north of England and was rained on inside the carriage (there was a hole in the roof) and yet was less annoyed than I am on every Virgin Train journey. The company likes to show off its supposed youth and edginess: the toilets autoplay an audio admonishment not to flush goldfish or your ex’s sweater down the toilet, but the faux-chumminess only makes you wish to flush Richard Branson’s head down there. Then, once you exit, you’re reminded that thanks to an incredible feat of engineering idiocy, the air that is pumped through the boiling hot carriages comes from the sewage tanks.

Richard Branson and Virgin think they’re hot shit, but their carriages smell like them.

It’s nearly impossible to catch a Virgin Train and not want to nationalize the entire rail system. Voters agree: when Corbyn said nationalization was one of the top priorities for a Labour government, Westminster journalists scoffed and went on a multipronged attack. Nationalization was a seventies throwback: far too of-the-past. Voters would never be interested in such a proposal; after all, the private sector had won that argument and there was no going back!

Then it was dismissed as a middle-class proposal: only those in big cities would care, more people drove cars than used trains, nationalizing rail was just a way of making life cheaper for people with a lot of spare cash, who wanted UK minibreaks. Then there was the argument that nationalized rail was awful, accompanied by calls to remember British Rail’s apparently terrible canteens and seats and how much better it is now you can spend hundreds of pounds to sit on the floor for four hours next to a toilet that speaks to you.

Corbyn’s attack on train privatization in 2016 saw dozens of commentators waste hours trying to disprove his statement that the train he was on was full, rather than accepting the fact his argument was solid and popular with voters, with a full 64 percent supporting renationalization. The electorate didn’t care if a pundit had scoured CCTV footage leaked by Virgin staff to the media. Many questioned why the media were happy to back up Virgin’s spin machine, since their experience chimed with that of the Labour leader and they were also sick of paying hundreds for a substandard service with no alternative.

As so often happened in the 2017 election, Corbyn proposed a policy; pundits scoffed and mocked; and opinion polls said the public fully backed the policy. For decades, a sizable coterie of journalists and politicians in London have elected to act as the defenders of the Overton window in UK politics, claiming that Left and Right stretch from soft Blairism to high Thatcherism, and nothing further on either side. That has led to political parties ignoring all but a small number of swing voters, a peculiar and unrepresentative group in itself, and in doing so ignore their much larger base by proposing policies only appealing to that group.

But it has also led to a huge disconnect between Westminster and what the country as a whole thinks. During campaigns, politicians invariably evoke “conversations on the doorstep,” wherein voters helpfully confirm whatever political point the MP wishes to make against his or her party leader. Much less emphasis is given to the proposal of new and radical ideas, and testing what the public think of them. Austerity was sprung upon the public, and the public largely feel negatively about it now. Corbyn proposing rail nationalization was bold, as was the proposal to extend compulsory purchase powers for homes left empty. The public backed them both, and both were policies that hadn’t been previously put forward.

If you catch a train in the UK, you’ll understand why nationalization is so popular. Warnings that it might not be much better don’t put off the public, because the public aren’t stupid. The NHS isn’t perfect, but we know we own it: we feel an investment in it, and we know what the alternative is. The state can improve it, because they own it. Currently, we don’t own our trains. We pay through the nose for horrendous journeys and know that the stack of cash handed over for that ticket is being pocketed by a billionaire. That’s far harder to swallow than sitting on a train and thinking it could be improved, but knowing the ticket price is going back into the service.

Nationalization makes sense, and the public know this because they can see the evidence all around them. In this, the public are ahead of most politicians; they are far more radical than the media dare to believe. Once rail is nationalized, all utilities and services have the opportunity to be brought in-house. The media will continue to be alarmist, but the public know it makes sense, and are happy to see fewer billionaires torturing people in sweatboxes that smell like dead bodies and echo with riddles about toilets.

As so often happens with capitalism’s most egregious failures, the public were told privatization would mean cheaper services, with companies competing for customers, and much greater value for money. It hasn’t. It’s been a colossal failure, creating monopolies in many cases, and hammering individuals’ purses for profits — and the time has come to renationalize the whole sorry mess.