How the private sector works to help the public sector spend our money badly

Virgin Trains’ pretend standard-class ticket is very handy for those who prefer to travel first class but need to disguise that fact on their expense claims.


The "Scottish Executive" ticket is really a subsidy in disguise
(Image credit: © 2016 Bloomberg Finance LP)

Eight years ago you could buy what is known as a "Scottish Executive" ticket from Edinburgh to London for £199. This sounds expensive, but it was actually a pretty good way to travel. For your £199 you got a completely flexible first-class return ticket, free parking at the station and travel inside zones 1 and 2 when you got to London.

I used it a lot (paying, by the way, with my own money!). Then the price started to go up to £220, then to £250 and then early this year (with no notice at all) to a staggering £329. It is still cheaper (just) than a first anytime return, but nonetheless this is quite a big jump.

Now here's the thing. I don't have a particular problem with the price rise in itself. Relative to other fares the Scottish Executive was always oddly cheap (at one point booking it the day before travel was quite a lot cheaper than booking a standard return the day before travel). What I do have a problem with is who I think who uses the ticket.

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There is something odd about the Scottish Executive. It isn't sold as a first-class ticket. Go into the Virgin Trains East Coast website and look for a first-class return from Edinburgh to London and you won't find it. There's no £329 fare available. But look for a standard ticket instead and there it is. You see, the Scottish Executive counts as a standard class ticket which includes a "first class upgrade." Why? I think you know why.

It is so that anyone who works for an organisation that isn't particularly price sensitive (by virtue of having only other people's money to spend) but which, for reputational reasons, can't be seen to be paying for first-class tickets, can travel first class while brandishing (and handing in as expenses) a ticket that says standard class. It doesn't matter how expensive Virgin make this ticket, people will still buy it.

How many public-sector workers use the ticket? Judging by the people I chat to in busy first class carriages, an awful lot. Virgin doesn't receive any official subsidies on the east coast line. But isn't this really a subsidy in disguise?

After all, if Virgin made the Scottish Executive an official first-class ticket rather than a first-class ticket in disguise, anyone not supposed to be travelling first class would have to buy a standard ticket. Book two weeks in advance and that'll save a hundred quid per person journey or so and given the movement between London and Edinburgh every week it wouldn't be long before that added up to real money.

You could even save money by actually allowing public sector workers to travel first class: if they booked specific trains and did so well in advance they could get a first-class return ticket for well under £200.

You will think I am making a fuss about not very much. Maybe I am. But to me this is just one more example among the many millions (you'll all have your own) that show us first how horribly inefficiently the public sector spends our money, and second how very, very willing the private sector is to help them do so.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.