A bizarre row has broken out after Virgin Trains accused Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn of falsely claiming one of its services was “ram-packed” in a video before taking a seat in a half-empty carriage.
The operator of the East Coast mainline took the unusual step of releasing CCTV footage of the London to Newcastle service on 11 August, allegedly showing Mr Corbyn in a seat moments after filming a video in which he called for renationalisation of the railways to stop overcrowding.
The Labour leader won praise from supporters for appearing to join passengers forced to sit on the floor because of a lack of seats. He was filmed sitting in the train vestibule on the way to Newcastle to take part in a debate with Owen Smith, who is challenging him for the Labour leadership.
In the video he said: “This is a problem that many passengers face every day on the trains, commuters and long distance travellers.
“Today this train is completely ram-packed. The staff on the train are absolutely brilliant, working really hard to help everybody. The reality is there’s not enough trains, we need more of them. Isn’t that a good case for public ownership?”
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However, he was mocked after video evidence suggested there were dozens of seats available, prompting claims the film was a staged publicity stunt.
Virgin Trains took issue with Mr Corbyn’s comments, saying it “clearly wasn’t the case” there were no seats available.
The company provided a time line with CCTV stills and footage suggesting the Labour leader walked past a number of empty seats in two carriages, later returning to sit in an unreserved seat after filming the video. Virgin boss Richard Branson weighed in to the row, tweeting a link to the CCTV images.
A Labour Party spokesman insisted there were no unreserved seats available and that passengers were forced to stand or sit on the floor.
Mr Corbyn’s supporters leapt to his defence, with fellow passengers posting selfies taken with the Labour leader while he was sitting in the aisle.
The bemused former deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman said: “There is a case for more public control or ownership of the railways.
“But I think you have to build that case on forensic facts and figures, not by sitting outside a toilet in a railway carriage, so I’m slightly baffled by that.”
Mr Smith made light of the row, posting on Twitter: “My campaign remains on track. Proud to be genuinely standing up for ordinary people.”
Another critic of the Labour leader, the MP Chris Bryant posted: “I think the wheels just came off Jeremy’s campaign and he’s about to be shunted into a siding.”
A Labour spokesman said: “When Jeremy boarded the train, he was unable to find unreserved seats, so he sat in the corridor.
“Later, seats became available after a family were upgraded to first class, and Jeremy and the team he was travelling with were offered seats.”
Timeline of Corbyn’s journey
Here is a timeline of Jeremy Corbyn’s Virgin Trains journey from King’s Cross to Newcastle on August 11.
• 11.00am - Jeremy Corbyn’s train leaves London King’s Cross bound for Newcastle, where he was due to attend a Labour leadership hustings opposite Owen Smith in Gateshead.
• 11.07am - The Labour leader is captured on CCTV walking down the aisle of coach H, approximately seven minutes after leaving King’s Cross. The footage is time-stamped at 11.10am owing to the system clock being three minutes fast, Virgin Trains said. He passes “several empty, unreserved seats”, according to the rail operator.
• 11.08am - Passing through coach F, Mr Corbyn walks by several reserved seats which are reportedly empty, meaning passengers are free to sit in them. Separate video uploaded to Twitter by Charles B Anthony, who accompanied him on the train, claims to show Mr Corbyn walking down a carriage of full seats. It is unclear which coach this is filmed in.
• 11.29am - Having walked to the end of the train, the Labour leader begins filming while sitting on the train floor. During a piece to camera, he says: “Today this train is completely ram-packed.”
• 11.43am - Footage shows him returning to coach H, where he takes a seat, according to Virgin Trains.
• Between 12.50pm and 12.53pm - The train makes its first scheduled stop at York.
• Between 1.19pm and 1.21pm - It pulls into its second stop, Darlington.
• 1.54pm - Mr Corbyn leaves coach H at Newcastle station, after the train arrived approximately five minutes late.