Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Rail Fare Rises Are On The Wrong Track

Much ado across the media outlets about the increases to rail fares. Of course, the hacks tend to go for the most eye-watering ("13%", some scream), but whilst the cost of living rises significantly for everyone, it's no real surprise to see rail fares suffering the same fate.
Yet, this is a move not borne out of private rail operator's making and desire to maximise the bottom line for share holders - this is the consequence of a political decision.
Make no mistake, railways are cash-hungry operations. They always have been. At present, the cost of operating the UK's trains is roughly split down the middle - fares income and general taxpayer. The Government is ploughing ahead with plans to reduce the burden on the taxpayer and place the cost of running our trains more on those that use them. Hence the need for fares to rise to effectively stand still (although ATOC - the Association of Train Companies - maintains that this is so that the rail industry can continue with the investment that is needed).
No doubt the rail industry will point to some of the "deals" that can be achieved by trawling the Internet and booking ahead, avoiding the peaks. Indeed, bargains can be had, but many of the woes of the average 8% fares increase will be suffered by those who have no choice in what times they can travel - commuters.
Passenger Focus also recently reminded us of the complex procedure we often have to endure to acquire some of these cheap fares - indeed there can be a large flurry of mouse clicking and significant time sat staring at computer screens before you're reasonably confident you've got a "deal". The ever-innovative Chiltern Railways are the first company to come out with a much-simplified fare structure - let's hope that others can follow suit in some shape or form.
Rail is crying out for investment. Passenger numbers continue to rise, even despite the economic downturn. It's a much more efficient way of travelling than by road or by air, and the rise in passengers suggests that people are recognising this.
So surely this is something that demands more investment, not less?
For businesses, the dream of video-conferencing does have its place, but face-to-face meetings will always be essential in order to build relationships. Rail travel plays a vital part in this. For the economy, getting people back into shops and spending is also vital. If people are put off and priced out of travelling because of fare increases, the recovery is stalled. And for some, the train of thought (excuse the pun) will be to simply get back in the car, as the mix of overcrowding and high prices finally becomes the straw that breaks the camel's back.
Rail needs investment. Public investment. High Speed 2 is one thing, but the current network is here and now. As Jimmy Saville once remarked "This Is The Age Of The Train" - it would be a disaster if people are priced off such a civilised and sensible way of travel.

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