Before I got a smart phone, I used to wander around talking to people all the time. I began to fall out of this habit during my mid 20s and getting my first iPhone was the nail in the coffin. Now I’m more likely to go out of my way to avoid talking to people than I am to start a conversation with a stranger.

This evening I was sitting on a train from Manchester to Cambridge, working on my forthcoming book about platform capitalism when someone tried to start talking to me. It turns out he was a co-founder of a small fitness platform startup and we had the most thought  provoking conversation about exactly what I’d been writing about in the abstract only minutes earlier. 

It was a reminder of why conversations undertaken at random can be so welcome and it left me resolving to make more of an effort to get into conversations, in the way that used to come relatively naturally to me yet now leaves me feeling at least initially stilted.

As has so often happened in the last year of my life, I found myself on an unpleasantly crowded train home this evening after a long day in London. I could not fail to be aware of the impending crowds as I began to board the train – the hordes of people who had ran past me as I strolled along the platform to board the train had been something of a giveaway. Naturally, this walk along the platform necessitated that I walk past a whole sequence of empty first-class coaches. I boarded the train and slowly made my way to my booked seat in coach B and finally sat down in a relatively empty carriage, having successfully negotiated the sprinting crowds who bafflingly never fail to sit down in the first carriage they come to despite having passively aggressively pushed past me on the way to the train to ensure they get a ‘good seat’. So I sit and get comfortable…. only to be interrupted by the  piercing tone of an impending announcement: “we would like to remind all passengers that, in spit of the overcrowding, first class tickets are required for first class travel. Train delays do not entitle you to first class travel“. So to catalogue my sources of indignation at that moment in time:

  • The seemingly endless sequence of first class carriages I’m forced to walk past before I board a service which is rendered private on the questionable basis that market competition ensures an efficient allocation of resources
  • The fact that train staff are sufficiently unaware and/or uncaring as to not append a suggestion to the aforementioned warning that ‘if you walk down to coach B or coach A there are lots of seats”
  • The fact that people who paid £20-£100 for a journey who might find themselves standing in crowded vestibules (because, as per the above point, the train manager either doesn’t realise or doesn’t care to inform them there are plenty of seats) after a day of 30 degree+ weather in London are now being lectured to about any incipient sense of entitlement which these unpleasant conditions might give rise to.

So I was feeling pretty indignant but then came the icing on the cake:  “we’d like to remind passengers that if you choose to leave luggage on an adjacent seat you will be charged at the full standard class fare for that seat“. Suddenly my casual indignation became detached, as my frustration coalesced into a view of a complex emergent system, all levels of which baffled and angered me: the irrational profligacy encoded into an institutional system of rules (the wasted capacity which is a precondition for sustaining the first/standard class boundary), the moralism with which these rules are enforced (“don’t for a second believe that our inadequate service entitles to you first class”) and the sanctions attached to their violation (“if you sit in first class, you have to buy a new ticket. If you spread out in standard class, you have to buy a new ticket”). I saw Spirit of 45 last night and in some ways I wan’t sure what to make of it. Was it romanticising post-war Britain? Was this a lost past which can never be regained given the economic and political conditions which the post-war consensus presupposed? I don’t know but I couldn’t help but think about it this evening, as I sat on a train contemplating the casual contemptuousness which pervades nearly every aspect of how train companies relate to their customers. Perhaps I’m complaining unjustly though. After all, the wonder of free enterprise means that if I’m unhappy with Virgin Trains I can take a London Midland train instead. Oh, wait. Damn.