Railway privatisation was not the most popular policy that I put on the statute book; but it does have one advantage. At the moment, a number of transport companies, including the incumbent Stagecoach, are bidding for the franchise for South West Trains which is up for renegotiation. Under British Rail, there was never this opportunity to test the market, drive a better bargain for travellers and taxpayers, and inject some competition into what was an unchallenged and at times cosy monopoly.
The outcome may be a better performing service; but my recent problem with the trains was not with the operator, but with a passenger.
The 5.20 from Waterloo to Basingstoke and Andover is a popular train, taking wealth creators back to their homes and families in Hampshire after a tough day in the Smoke. So popular is it that sometimes there is nowhere to sit.
Catching it recently, I arrived ten minutes before departure and sat down. Shortly afterwards, a lady came down the aisle and placed an expensive woman’s magazine on the table next to me. “Would you please keep this place for me?” she asked, in a tone to which the only acceptable answer was “Yes”. She then vanished off the train in a cloud of scent, confronting me with a moral dilemma.
For, within seconds, other passengers – many of them constituents - sought to place themselves in the seat reserved for the Reader of the Magazine. Harassed elderly ladies, perspiring gently in the heat, made a beeline for what eventually became the only unoccupied seat in the carriage, and began manoeuvring themselves into place.
“I am afraid someone is sitting there” I said. “I don’t see anybody” was the usual response, followed by a look of hatred. For five minutes I fought a stout rearguard action on behalf of the Vanishing Lady who, for all I knew, was busy buying expensive magazines and scent on the station concourse and might miss the train. What was worse – to let someone take the seat and risk a public denunciation for lack of chivalry when she returned; or to become yet more unpopular with my regular travelling companions?
With seconds to spare, she returned, sat in the seat for which I had almost given if not my life at least a useful chunk of my parliamentary majority. She proffered a perfunctory nod of appreciation in my direction, unaware of the dramas that had taken place in her absence.
Dear lady, if you are somewhere out there – please don’t ask me to do that again. What ever it is you want to buy – I’ll buy it. And you can keep my seat while I do so.