The great rail rip off

Passengers struggling on to the railways for the Christmas break are being hit by a double whammy that’s not at all in the spirit of the season. Not only, as the Standard reported recently, are most people having to pay the full whack for their tickets, but thanks to Network Rail’s failure to schedule its engineering work properly, many passengers will find themselves on a replacement bus service – a nightmare for people carrying luggage or gifts.

Worse is to come for travellers in the New Year, when the annual fare rises are implemented. That painful return from the holidays will be made even more galling for commuters paying seven or eight per cent more than they do now; even the lucky ones will be hit by a four per cent hikes in fares. And this will be the pattern for future years. The Government is deliberately allowing the train companies to put up train fares in order to reduce the subsidy from taxpayers, currently running at a historic high of over £5 billion per year.

It’s a rotten state of affairs for which the train companies and the Government bear equal responsibility.

For a start, the fares structure is a complete mess: it’s incomprehensible to passengers and makes no sense from an environmental point of view either. In truth, there is no fares policy except to fleece the punters. As many hapless passengers travelling this weekend have found to their cost, the full-price fares are astronomical and completely unjustifiable, working out at over £1per mile for a return journey. You can’t even get to Coventry and back from London for less than £100 at peak times and you will be paying over £200 to reach any of the main Northern centres.

Supposedly, this is to put off people using the trains at peak times and encourage them to fill up the emptier trains running off peak. The train operators claim they offer lots of cheap tickets for off-peak times. Indeed, there are some cheap offers available – but the companies have gradually extended the ‘peaks’, making it more and more difficult for anyone other than those who are completely flexible to benefit from cheap fares.

Moreover, those tickets are generally available only on a first-come-first-served basis – and for reasons of “commercial confidentiality”, the operators will not reveal exactly how many seats are available at these low prices. That £12.90 ticket to Newcastle may sound good, but how many people can get it? We just don’t know.

Part of this is down to the greed of train operators, cashing in on the rising demand for rail travel caused by growing congestion on the roads. FirstGroup, Stagecoach and National Express have all announced increased profits from their rail sectors, which are becoming something of a cash cow for them compared with the stagnating bus industry.

But it’s not all down to them. There is also a hidden government agenda behind this the fare rises that we will suffer in January. In the good old days of John Prescott – it is difficult to write that with a straight face – there was a clear strategy to get people out of their cars and on to public transport.

That required policies which raised the hackles of the powerful motoring lobby, as it involved imposing a fuel tax “escalator” which pushed up the price of petrol by six per cent above the rate of inflation every year. Commuters and long-distance travellers using Saver tickets, however, enjoyed fares rises that were restricted to one per cent below the rate of inflation; now, ministers allow rises of one per cent.

It was a brave policy – and it worked. This was good for the railways and good for the environment. In the late 1990s, for the first time in peacetime since the First World War, the rate of growth of traffic on the roads slowed to a standstill. With petrol prices soaring and trains becoming relatively cheaper, people flocked to the railways.

It couldn’t last. Even before the fuel protests of 2000, Gordon Brown scrapped the fuel tax escalator. And now, the policy of encouraging people on to the railways has been quietly abandoned: you won’t hear ministers talk about encouraging people to get out of their cars any more.

The reason: the railways are booming anyway, and so the Government thinks it can get away with fare increases. Commuters, in particular, have no choice but to stump up the money: who in their right mind would drive into central London from Winchester or Guildford, especially with the congestion charge and parking to pay as well?

The current policy of raising fares above the rate of inflation shows just how little credence one can give to ministers’ hot air about fighting climate change. Not only are they intent on reducing the £5-billion annual bill for subsidising the railways; they also know that if rail use continues to grow at its current rate of six to eight per cent a year, then demands for major investment would become impossible to ignore. As it is, the rail strategy published in a White Paper earlier this year was a weak document that rejected both a high-speed, north-south rail link and a programme of electrification as too expensive and not needed.

What a cowardly bunch these ministers are. Keeping down the price of the railways would be popular and would probably pay for itself by attracting more people on to them. In truth, though, that is the last thing ministers want. Instead, by shifting the burden of paying for the railways from taxpayers to fare payers, they hope to price off demand.

The Government has decided that the rail industry, privatised in a botched way that pushes up costs, is simply not value for money – and therefore not worth the sort of massive investment programmes now being implemented to create high-speed networks elsewhere in Europe. Ministers only agreed to go ahead with the Crossrail scheme because London is simply clogging up and pressure from business was becoming impossible to resist.

So rail users will have to suffer increased fares and overcrowded conditions. As you battle your way on to the train this Christmas, you are seeing the future of the railways – or at least the future that transport secretary Ruth Kelly has in mind. That this future can make us think nostagically of John Prescott is a measure of its utter wong-headedness.

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