BRITISH RAIL FARES: SKY-HIGH OR COSTING THE EARTH?

We all seem to agree that improving public transport has benefits for the environment, as well as for quality of life. Well, public transport in the UK is improving, slightly, and not before time. However, the costs are still ridiculously high by international standards, despite what we are told by politicians and the train companies. Earlier this year a damning report by the Passenger Focus group – the first-ever of its kind – compared rail fares in the UK with the rest of Europe. For average commuter journeys (11 – 25 miles) into the respective capital cities, UK fares are (a) the highest in Europe, (b) twice as high as the second highest, France, and (c) four times as high as Italy. Inter-city fares compared equally badly; 87% higher than in Germany; three times those in the Netherlands.
Transport commentator Christian Wolmar says that despite these high fares (and despite having privatised our rail system so as to hand regional monopolies to a small number of operating companies) we are still subsidising rail to a large extent. To what extent, I’d love to know. I’ve heard it said that subsidies are higher than when the rail system was nationally owned in the UK. That can’t be true, can it? If you want to see the BBC’s report on the report, see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7897903.stm

When representatives of train operating companies are interviewed about high fares, they always say that if you book early, you can get really good deals. Well, “a chance would be a fine thing”, as the saying goes. Next week I’m heading from Bristol, where I live, to Harrogate in Yorkshire; to visit old friends and also to see my daughter singing in cabaret (had to get that in!) at a hotel in the Dales. Despite checking online several times, well in advance, I have found none of these elusive so-called advance tickets available. Thus I’ll have to pay the “turn up and go” fare. That’s £58 return, based on (a) my senior card, (b) off-peak travel, and (c) avoiding London. If I’d needed to travel before 9 a.m., go via London and been a couple of years younger, it would have been £167. The distance is 224 miles each way … “do the math!” as they say in America.

My fare information source, by the way, was the well-known website branded: “The Train Line: buy cheap tickets ….” Cheap tickets, huh? What would qualify as expensive? I wonder if there is another website that offers “expensive tickets … because you’re worth it.” Those fares would be truly eye-watering.

This was not an isolated case: in the past few months I have made also made longish journeys to Manchester and to Haverfordwest in West Wales. In neither case was an advance ticket available, despite trying to book at least a week in advance; the ads tell us that advance tickets are available until the day before travel.

By the way, my senior railcard costs £26 a year. That’s a good investment, because I save much more than that. However, in France and (see below) Canada, seniors get discounted travel without paying for the privilege. As I saw on a T-shirt: “I’m a senior: give me my damn discount!”

Re Canada: last week I was there for my nephew’s wedding. Coming back, I discovered that I could get to the airport by Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC) subway – or underground as we’d say on this side of the pond – with a connecting shuttle bus for the last couple of miles. The service was frequent, quick, civilised. The one-way fare (one ticket, valid on subway, tram and bus, as always in Toronto) costs just $1.85 Canadian, (that’s about £1.20) for seniors, $2.85 for you youngsters. The distance is 17 miles, (27 km) which is similar to the Heathrow / London distance. Yes, I know that one can do the whole journey to Heathrow by tube, whereas in Toronto it’s tube plus shuttle-bus; but if you live in or near London, you don’t need me to tell you how the costs compare.

I also saw two safety ideas of especial interest to women passengers. Every subway platform has a Designated Waiting Area with an emergency call system, where anyone who might feel vulnerable is invited to stand. Also their buses have a “Request Stop Program,” whereby women travelling alone on a bus between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. can ask the driver to stop at any intermediate point between bus-stops.

So, on both value for money and on passenger (sorry, customer) care: Toronto Transit Commission, take a bow!

2 thoughts on “BRITISH RAIL FARES: SKY-HIGH OR COSTING THE EARTH?

  1. The problem is that the headline offers (the advance purchases) are of little use to commuters, and it's commuters who need most of all to be enticed onto public transport.

    A fascinating piece of stealth inflation has happened with bus services, which is how I commute. I use my local Stagecoach, and the season ticket price is very reasonable (and I am extremely fortunate to have an employer with a season-ticket loan scheme), and has only gone up in line with inflation. BUT, four years ago the ticket was valid on all Stagecoach services in the UK. Then it was valid on all in teh South of England. Now it's most (but not all) travel within Oxfordshire. or someone who travels around, the ACTUAL rate of inflation on that is astronomical, and essentially rack-renting, but because figures are based on the price and not what you get for it, it doesn't get picked up.

  2. That's an outrageous piece of stealth inflation by Stagecoach. You make a good point in describing the advance purchases as headline offers; we are many of us guilty of being over-influenced by the headline, if only because unravelling the back-story is often complicated or too time-consuming, especially if we are not personally affected.That's why I have been a fan of Radio 4's "More or Less", which tried to unravel the detail behind "headline" stats bandied around in the media.

    "Rack-renting" – I must remember that; a good description of the case you described.

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