There are four main ways to pay the growing bills for the railways. As so often in the UK political debate, most only discuss two of them. The public is invited to choose between all taxpayers having to pay more tax, the Labour way, so the railway gets an even larger public subsidy, or putting the fares up, the way approved by the Coalition government and the Rail regulator.
If that is the only choice, then I reluctantly side with the government. The people who use the railway should pay a larger proportion of the costs of their chosen method of travel. Of course it is not the only choice, and the results of the last years of Labour and Coalition living with Network Rail has been to increase the costs to both taxpayers and rail users to unacceptably high levels. So what are the other two ways of solving the problem of the railway’s bills? How can we get a better deal for the hard pressed rail commuter without having to fleece him and her as taxpayers instead?
The first is to sell more seats at sensible prices. The peak hour tickets are very expensive to try to put people off. Many of the off peak prices are very low, in a desperate bid to get more people to use the railways. I have no problem with off peak bargains, but they do need to sell more of them. All too often when I travel on a train it is mainly empty, with maybe only 20% of the seats sold. The railways need to do more to find out what extra journeys people might like to make by train, and at what price. They could then arrange timetables that maximised use and revenue, with off peak trains at times and between places that attracted enough business. The railway seems to spend a fortune on hurtling empty first class carriages around the country for much of the day.
The second is to cut costs. Of course they need to spend money on ensuring safe travel, but most analyses of our railway shows it is considerably more expensive than railway systems elsewhere in Europe. The McNulty Report pointed to the need for large efficiency savings. The capital programme does need to bring more seats for busy routes, more efficient trains, and newer stations in some cases. But does it really require £960 million to improve just one provincial station, Reading? What could they have done for say £750 million there?
I have at last received an answer to my recent letters to members of Network Rail. I will not publish it, as it does not of course answer the questions I posed. It is instead a simple eulogy of Network Rail of the kind you can easily read on their website and in their literature, telling me that the financing and efficiency levels of Network Rail are just fine. Therein lies the problem. There is not enough willingness to search for better and cheaper solutions, nor is there enough sales and marketing flair to fill enough seats. That is why rail fares are going up. We await news from Mr Miliband about who he would tax to subsidise the railway more. Doubtless it will include the commuters whose case he says he wants to assist. The railways are just another travel business. They do not seem to run in the same businesslike manner that the unsubsidised public transport operators often manage.