Wednesday, 2 January 2013

A Fare Old Issue...

For advocates of public transport, it's a depressing time when the headlines are made for negative reasons. Sadly, today's fare rises are one of those days.
Public transport, as an industry, is vital. It is the very lifeblood that helps the country function every hour of every day. And on the first day back at work for many after the Christmas break, it's the story of expensive tickets - with all the media pulling out the stops to find the worst possible example - that is today's ready-made headline.
Of course I sympathise with commuters who are bearing the brunt of some of these increases. I hear what they say when they argue that that they have little choice in the time of travel or the route that they use. The vicious circle continues to spiral downwards when passengers add their other negative experiences of rail travel.
But what's this? Rail travel continues to rise, despite the economic woes. It's more popular now than at any time since the halcyon days of the 1920s - when the network was much larger and the motor car was a luxury only for the wealthy. It's a very strange conundrum.
We often hear that train travel in Britain is the most expensive in Europe, but we often don't hear that, if you can book ahead and be flexible (a luxury not afforded to commuters!) there are some incredible bargains. Once again next week, I'm availing myself of a £6 ticket on Chiltern Railways all the way from London Marylebone to Stourbridge Junction. My 2 mile taxi journey home from there will cost me more.
So, always another side to a story, but back to the top news story of the day - why rail commuters, and why more pain in the back pocket?
Railways are expensive. An old railwayman once told me that no railway has ever made a profit. That's something to Google in a quiet moment, but whilst I'm sure individual train operating companies will have their accounts poured over by hungry journalists looking for a fat-cat story, we're talking whole costs of the railway here - including the infrastructure. For years the costs of running the railway in its entirety were split roughly 50/50 between farepayer and taxpayer, but successive Governments have gradually moved this more in favour of the farepayer paying a larger slice of the cake. Hence the now seemingly annual fare price, above the rate of inflation. Train Operating Companies also have some room to wiggle here in that they can increase some fares on a higher level, so long as some others are raised at a lesser level, or even cut. All of this applies to what are called "regulated" fares (i.e. the ones the Government has a say in), which amount to around just under half of all fares. These are mainly commuter fares for season ticket holders. The other fares are "unregulated" and the Train Operating Company sets these themselves (e.g. my £6 bargain!)
Investment in our railways is key. There hasn't been enough of it over the years and we're playing catch up. The Government are keen to remind us that it is they who are currently investing a lot of money in the railways, and whilst this is certainly not a plug for the coalition, it is so important that rail - for all of its issues - is not forgotten, and is invested in. We currently have several large-scale projects on the go, including CrossRail and the major station rebuilding work at Birmingham New Street and Reading. We also need long-term thinking and investment. High Speed 2 is supported by all 3 major political parties - we sorely need this not only to further enhance our rail network, but to create additional capacity on our existing lines.
Someone has to pay for all of this. Like all things, it's open to opinion as to what the Government - i.e. our taxes - should contribute. Would renationalisation be better? Or are our railways in better hands with the current franchise system? Should taxpayers pay more for the railways as a "national asset" or should the burden of paying for the railways fall squarely on those that use them most?
And who mentions the buses, where fares are also increasing, mainly in an industry that is free of Government intervention when it comes to setting the price of a journey? This industry is facing different types of issues to the railways - ever diminishing subsidies on marginal services, such as that on the amount of rebate they get on fuel and the issues of concessionary pass reimbursement and council subsidy for marginal services.
The public transport "experience" needs to be a positive one as a whole. Fares are only one part of that, but the negative headlines today impact on people's impressions of the transport industry. For commuters who suffer overcrowded journeys to work, they are right to question their quality of journey now that they are paying even more for it. The bus and rail industry needs to redouble its efforts to shout about the positive things going on (see previous post). Investment takes time, but a high quality rail and bus network is the goal. We all have to pay, but seeing the benefits is important too.
It's a fare old issue....

1 comment:

  1. I'd disagree with you on the HS2 detail Phil. We would not need such a massive leap into the dark if we steadily worked on the resources we have already, in a more considered way.

    HS2's route was negotiated and part-built 106 years ago, and then wrecked by a silly move in the 1960's. It has been recovered stealthily and without major headlines by Chiltern's Evergreen 3 programme, albeit that has been a constrained project because the strategic value of a 4 track 125 (or even 140) mph railway corridor which duplicates the WCML AND is built to Berne Gauge AND has no level crossings to remove (it was built without them from the outset) was not recognised and funding to deliver a 125mph Chiltern Mainline instead of the 100mph 'budget' version.

    Transferring across the WCML and ECML performance to a 125mph GC/GW route could deliver a London-Birmingham journey time of 60-65 minutes using current technology and 40 year old trains.

    But with this rapidly deliverable (in comparison with HS2) regime, we have the opportunity to run bi-level commuter carriages - available to lease or buy now (ie no expensive 'for UK rail only' special trains) from mainland Europe, on the hard pressed commuter corridors, starting with the GC/GW routes but through using this parallel route with no time penalty, working radically on the WCML for gauge enhancement that will then permit bi-level carriages to run between Euston and The Midlands, giving high capacity trains without platform and signalling alterations (and land/space issues) linked to longer trains.

    The GC/GW route also has the potential to link with HS1 using under utilised tunnels (3 x 2-track for a 4 x 2-track railway) under Hampstead, and offer St Pancras's spare capacity as an alternative destination for some Marylebone services.

    Of the fares themselves we have, since privatisation, had to pay for the work of the Rail Settlement Plan Ltd operation to assess and divide up the fares income proportionate to the amounts due to each operator, and each operator has presumably got staff working on this, and the claims and counter claims for delays from network Rail and other TOC's a level of bureaucracy that wasn't needed when all the fares revenue went into one pot. This is not a call for re-nationalisation but a prompt to consider concessions rather than franchises, as a way forward. where there is no competition in bidding to pay a premium, but simply to run the trains specified, with the encouragement of earning more by proposing services that make better use of the available trains