UK RAIL LINES IN THE HEADLINES AGAIN

Just when British rail travellers thought they had seen the end of travel miseries caused by the ice and snow in the weeks up to Christmas, they’ve been hit with steep fare increases. The average fare hike is double the inflation rate and some fares will rise by 12.8%. Meanwhile promised improvements to services are in most cases nowhere to be seen, although to be fair punctuality has improved. (By British standards, that is; we say that a train is punctual if it’s less than 10 minutes late, whereas in Spain, the land supposedly of ‘manana’, if one of their high-speed services is five minutes late your fare is refunded.).

Rail’s share of “total miles” small?

A recent article in last weekend’s Independent on Sunday (2 Jan 2010) by Alexandra Woodsworth, of the Campaign for Better Transport, says that even steeper rises are planned from January 2012, as the government wants to reduce the taxpayer’s contribution to the cost of running our much-criticised rail network. In itself a justifiable aim, if you consider it unfair to subsidise so heavily a mode of transport that represents 8% of the total distance travelled in Britain, (The Economist, 1 Jan 2010) compared with “85% by cars and vans”. That last phrase makes me wonder whether the statistic included freight miles; time to call in Tim Harford and his team at Radio 4’s wonderful “More or Less” programme with their genius for unpicking the headline statistics so beloved of many journalists and so often misleadingly used. It was Gore Vidal who said, “The worst thing I can say about my fellow-Americans is that they don’t like any question that can’t be answered in ten seconds” and sometimes I think we are going the same way.

Captive market

The Economist article points out that UK rail fares have grown by 50% in real terms since 1980 and it’s already well-known that our fares are the highest in Europe by a massive margin. Despite that, many commuters have no real alternative and “many rail firms enjoy a virtually captive market, (and regional monopolies too) hence passenger numbers continue to increase: we complain but many of us cannot vote with our feet because we need the trains to get to our jobs. The claim is often made that trains are “favoured by the better-off” but this is somewhat misleading: trains are not so much the favoured solution as a necessity for those who work in London, where wages and salaries are higher but so are living costs.

Subsidies and profits

The same magazine has often made the claim that the taxpayer subsidy of rail (currently £4.4 bn / annum) is four times higher than it was before we privatised the network in the mid-1990s (a decision taken by the then Tory government but implemented by Labour) but it’s not clear if that’s inflation-adjusted. Either way, can this massive subsidy be justified in view of rail’s small share of the travel market? And can it be consistent with the highest fares in Europe? (and in many people’s opinion the worst services?)

In a recent post I quoted a letter scoffing at a claim by a senior manager in the train operating companies (TOCs) that there would be fares “to suit everyone’s pockets”. The writer guessed whose pockets would be best suited by the new fares and it would not be the traveller. These new fares will be better news for the taxpayer and best of all for the TOCs themselves. The partial justification of the increases is planned improvements to the services provided by these privately owned train operators; that’s equivalent to Tesco, for example saying: “we want to open new stores next year, which will of course increase our market share, our turnover and our profits; that’s a good economic decision for us but to pay for it we need you, the consumer, to make the investment, so we will increase all our prices now.”

Off-peak more expensive?

“And another thing …” Why are our rail fares so complicated? Last week I travelled from Bristol to Exeter. Even though I knew exactly which train I wanted to get, there were seven different single fares available, just for that particular train, according to www.thetrainline.com, all with slightly different conditions attached. If I had not been sure which train to take, there would have been dozens of different fares.

Of course advance booking is usually cheaper than walk-up and off-peak is cheaper than peak, i.e. “anytime”. However, here’s the most ludicrous thing I noticed last week: the walk-up fare for an “off-peak single” on my train was slightly more expensive than the equivalent fare for an “anytime single.” As Jeremy Clarkson might say, if he’d ever written about trains (which I doubt), “you couldn’t make it up.”

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

“What’s green about encouraging us to drive?” The Independent on Sunday, 2 January 2011. http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/alexandra-woodsworth-whats-green-about-encouraging-us-to-drive-2173948.html

Alexandra Woodsworth, The Campaign for Better Transport. http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/

“After the deluge, the pinch: Britain’s expensive trains are set to get even pricier.” The Economist, 1 January 2011. http://www.economist.com/node/17800351?story_id=17800351&CFID=158635719&CFTOKEN=67846156

“ … Britain’s definition of punctual includes trains up to ten minutes late”. From The Economist 4 June 2009: “Pay up, pay up, and board the train.” http://www.economist.com/node/13788573

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