It is a scandal that train fares are going up by between 6% and 10%, with some off peak prices soaring. This morning on the Today programme the BBC interveiwer got through a discussion and commentary without ever once mentioning the word “costs”. There is one simple reason why train fares are so high and rising so fast – the costs of train travel are too high and rising too fast.
In the “good” years of the credit boom and higher sterling we got used to many trhings being such good value. Mass produced clothes, TVs, cars, foodstuffs and many other items in our daily budgets have been great value. They have been so because they have been supplied by a fiercely competitive world market. They have often been produced by cheap labour, they have benefitted from a huge surge in automation and from the digital revolution slashing costs and improving accuracy and efficiency. They have been brought to us by competitive retailers and suppliers in the UK, fighting to win our custom.
Train services are supplied in a very different way. There are strong monopoly elements. They depend largely on UK labour. Their management often sees satisfying the government as being more important than looking after the rail user. The UK has failed to regulate railways for better safety and fuel efficiency in the way it has regulated road travel for these requirements.
As a result we have a high cost service, which often does not look after the customer in the way we would like. It is short of capacity at peak times, runs lots of poorly utilised trains at off peak times and on less popular routes, runs many older engines which are very fuel inefficient, and pulls around very heavy carriages which again burns large amounts of fuel. The main contact you have with staff on the railway is to check your ticket to make sure you are not on the fiddle, rather than contact to enhance your journey and help you navigate the system which does not help the staff-customer relationship.
So which costs could the ralways cut?
1. The fuel bill. The UK standard of very heavy trains needs amending. Far from being green, our trains are fuel inefficient through old engine technology combined with heavy weight of carriages. The trains are usually left running when standing in stations. Switching to electric trains means even less fuel efficiency, when you factor in the large energy loss at the generating station.
2. Manning levels. Large numbers of people are engaged in ticket issue and inspection. Sometimes people check tickets at barriers before joining or when leaving a train. In addition other staff inspect tickets on trains. There needs to be a more automated way of ticket checking, and some commonsense over whether to use a station or a train based system of inspection.
3. Types of train purchased. There is not a lot of competition in the train supply market which makes it more difficult. The requirement for very heavy trains seems to have come from worries that trains can leave the tracks and when they do there needs to be a very rigid structure to coaches so they remain intact.There are lighter ways of creating this strength.
4. Regulation. Applying road vehicle standards of fuel efficiency and safety could drive much needed change. Why do I get a seat belt in my car but not on train ( I also get one on a plane)? Why does my car have a crumple zone in the event of a crash but a train does not? Why are there still unpadded and hard edges in train carriages whereas the interior of cars has been made safer? Why aren’t there tougher emission standards applied to engines as to road vehicles? That would drive fuel saving changes which would help cut costs.