Wokingham Times

What a way to run a railway. We have seen several years of high fare rises. Now comes confirmation of yet another large rise in fares, by as much as 6.2% on some routes. With incomes going up on average by around 1.6%, that’s another tight squeeze on people’s living standards.

Part of the problem is the railway relies on a few high volume routes into the centres of our larger towns and cities for the bulk of its revenue. In our case commuters to Reading and to London account for a large proportion of the daily turnover. It makes them too easy a target for the railways wanting more fare revenue. They tax and tax again the captive commuter audience.

Meanwhile, the railways also run lots of trains to and from less popular destinations, and at times of day when few people want to travel. To try to get in some revenue on these trains, and to look as if the railway is useful there as well, the companies sell a large number of deeply discounted tickets to tempt people to travel where otherwise they might not, or tempt them to travel by train rather than by car. The companies do not feel they can bump these prices up, as many of the buyers do not have to buy the ticket in the way the hard pressed commuter does.

All this seems very unfair. Some say the answer is to send more government money to the railway companies, to increase the subsidy in order to keep the fares down. Much of this is just charging the same people in a different way. The very people who go to work on the commuter train are also some of the people who have to pay the higher taxes to pay the rail subsidy. The car commuter, often commuting by car because there is no train for his journey, also will have to pay more tax to subsidise someone else’s journey. How fair is that?

The answer has to be running the railways better and more efficiently. UK railways have costs around a third higher than the better comparable European railway systems. Our railways are paying bills to send a lot of nearly empty trains around the countryside, as well as failing to provide enough seats and trains on the really popular routes at popular times of day for travel. If you fly above southern England at morning peak you will see jammed roads with coaches, buses and cars bumper to bumper trying to get into London or Reading, and you will see largely empty railway lines, owing to the technology and numbers of trains operating.

There are cheaper ways to run good train services. There are technologies that would allow you to shift many more people safely each hour on the current available railway routes. That is what we need to do. The railway needs revenue from more and better peak services, and needs to spend less on trains to places few want to go.

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10 Comments

  1. Peter Hearn
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Surely it’s time to get government right out of the railway business?

    This is a quasi-nationalised industry with strong union power and very high wages for quite simple work which could and should be automated. London Underground is finally looking at driverless trains – something they’ve shied away from for years due to the likely union conflict such a move will bring. Time to grasp the nettle.

    Whilst the dead hand of the state rests on any industry, it will not prosper. Let’s have unfettered competition on the rails. By all means let the state own the land on which the rails are laid, but this should be leased out for a peppercorn rent and all [credible] operators granted access. Let Virgin, First, Stagecoach and whoever else can mount the funds to run a train get on with it, on the same line, rather than handing out monopolies every 15 years to a “lucky winner”.

    Currently Whitehall is all over the railways, micro-managing them to a ridiculous degree. Does some mandarin in London know how many coaches should be on the 07:48 from Grockle sub Wintlebum to Waterloo each morning? Clearly not, yet such detail is specified in rail franchises.

    Let many operators ply their trade on the rails, and may the best firms win!

  2. Simon George
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Annual rail fare rises are based on the July retail price inflation data, which came in at 3.2 per cent according to data published by the Office of National Statistics. The agreement is that rail fares can increase by an average of 3 percentage points above inflation in order that investment can be made to improve services. The government together with the Bank of England is responsible for the policy which has delberately engineered inflation through low interest rates and QE.

  3. Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Problem with rail is that they choose stephenson’s narrow gauge instead of Brunel’s wide gauge .

    Planes and road travel will always be more efficient and comfortable.

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      The problem is that in 1892 when Brunel’s 7′ broad gauge was superceded by the narrower Stevenson gauge the railways had no competition from air or road transport. With the benefit of 20:20 hindsight we now know this was a mistake. With the capacity increasing in direct ratio to the square of the guage, just think how many more passengers the same number of trains would now be able to carry.

  4. Nicola Clubb
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Before anyone should think about closing lines there needs to be proper public transport to these small towns otherwise you risk killing these places off they becoming ghost villages and similar.

  5. BobE
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Replace tracks with dual carriagway. Directly into most town and cities. Turn the stations into car parks. This would revive towns and cities at a stroke. Start investing in hydrogen cars as well.

  6. Barbara Stevens
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    The railways were privatised and should therefore stand on their own two feet and not expect, a former public industry, to be supported by the taxpayers. Indeed, why sell it in the first place if we still have to inject money into it. People scrambled to purchase the railways knowing full well the running costs would be high and modernisation would cost plenty; may be they also knew the suckers who keep working and paying tax would have deep pockets. Its time they stood on their own two feet. Increasing fares will only send people back to their cars, and stop some riding on trains, greed is manifested in many industries where public money is expected. Large salary rises from the bottom to the very top should cease until the industry is in order, and no more public money given.

  7. Graham Swift
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    And an idiotic decision on West Coast Line. Virgin have done well . If it ‘ ain’t broke , why mend it ?’. Greening is another incompetent in Bullingdon Boy’s clique. Why doesn’t the 1922 Committee start to take action ? Re-shuffle is like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

    Reply: The idea of competitive tenders is to secure better deals for taxpayer and passengers.

  8. David Langley
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    What on earth happened to the Maglev idea. Running besides or over motorways on mass produced gantries the maglev trains could run at hundreds of miles per hour for peanuts. Safe and energy efficient who would not want to sit comfortable and cheaply above the jammed and sweating mess of road and conventional rail commuting?
    Science fiction I dont think so, someone will come up with reasons (Excuses) why this is not feasible.
    I could see branch lines introduced cheaply without disturbing existing structures compared with our old branch lines. In fact some of these spaces are still available for this idea.
    Thief proof signalling, transfer from gantries to ground tracks in protected station transfer sites, one can can think of many benefits. Electricity driven not diesel or other pollution. We all know nuclear power is the future, so lets get on with it. Building these would provide work for thousands, and profit for those with imagination.
    Lets leave the motorways to the lorries and their half asleep drivers to smash their way to London or wherever. We could be safer and happier somewhere else.

  9. Greg Tingey
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    “UK railways have costs around a third higher than the better comparable European railway systems. ”
    AND WHOSE FAULT IS THAT?
    John Major with his “deeply inefficient British Rail”
    So it was deliberately fragmented, track separated (not just separately accounted for) from trains etc, lots of little managements, with their own separate overheads, and vast bureaucratic wrong regulation.

    Well?

    Reply: It was even worse when it was a single nationalised monopoly. In those days passenger numbers kept falling.

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  • About John Redwood

    John Redwood has been the Member of Parliament for Wokingham since 1987. First attending Kent College, Canterbury, he graduated from Magdalen College, and has a DPhil from All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.
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