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.