Friday, 13 December 2013

An Un-fare Cop?

Midway through December is when you become aware of Noddy shouting his annual Christmas message on the Slade song, those with a fetish for flashing lights dressing up their houses like a fairground ride and the chance to experience what it must be like to play rugby if you join the scrum at the German markets in Brum.
It is also the time that my local bus operator National Express West Midlands announces it's fare revisions for January. A tradition that is almost as comforting as shuffling around the attic to find out which bin bag has got the Christmas tree in. 
In recent years the operator has been criticised for not announcing the new fares with enough notice. This year they've done it nice and early. But the natives are still revolting. Social media is full of the usual un-thought-through comments and the local paper's website has helpfully printed a selection of tweets that are consumable by a family audience. (I've seen some written with such bile that you'd think the writer was being attacked by a rabid hound as it was tweeted).
No one, of course, wants to pay more for anything. Wouldn't we all like to still be paying 20p for a pint and still see the kid in short trousers delivering the loaf on his bike? It is simply a fact of life - and the economy - that things go up in price. Doesn't mean we have to like it, but we could do with understanding it a bit more. 
Transport operators tend to spend much of January inhabiting that most lonely of places - the less than des-res somewhere between the Rock and the Hard Place. The moral indignation raised by readers of the Express & Star's website is small-fry compared to what will be next month's annual collective UK-wide rant at rail fare prices. I for one can't wait to see red-faced commuters screwing their faces up at the camera outside Euston station for a BBC News Channel reporter. Actually, in truth I'm quite depressed about it. 
Is it an "un-fare cop" (excuse the pun) for public transport operators to shoulder such negative vibes when, actually, most of everything else is going up in price as well? 
Take my visit to the pub last week. My place of solace (apart from on Facebook) where I can rant-lyrical, and have an audience to mock my displeasure of life in Britain in 2013. But even here, in this sanctuary, I found the price of the nuts had gone up. No advance warning, no sign above the bar. I just subtlety received slightly less change, with the "nuts price revision" revealed only upon enquiry. I also suspect my favourite choccy bar has gone up, as, I'm sure, the price of bread and milk has. But Tesco doesn't tell you this. There's no sign saying "as from 2 Jan 2014, the price of a Snickers will be rising by 10p". It just does. 
The problem with public transport fare rises is two-fold. First, it's a "distress purchase" (whereas my pub nuts are purely for pleasure). That leads on to the second point whereby, because people resent paying more, they consider the "value for money" of what they're paying for, often unjustly and without sensible reasoning. I'm not advocating transport operators not fore-warning of fare increasing, it's just that by doing so, it opens the gates to open-season for the rant-savvy. 
What, perhaps, could transport operators do to mitigate such negative publicity? 
It's difficult. Despite the spending on transport here in the West Midlands (and other areas) being less than half of that lavished on London, we do some great things on bus, train and tram. We should, at least, shout about them a bit more. But inevitably, if you aren't a student of public transport like me, you'll only view your "distress purchase" as a necessary evil and only focus on your payment for the service provided getting you to where you want to be on time. Punctuality and reliability naturally remain at the top of every users list. And naturally, people forget the vast majority of times when public transport delivers, but focus on the occasions when it doesn't. And more often than not, it is out of the hands of operators when services run late. So the logic of tweet-ranters who declare they're going to give up the bus because the fare's gone up 10p to drive because the bus is always late (an oft-repeated turn of phrase) isn't actually logical at all, given that the person is simply going to add to the congestion and, dare I whisper it, actually going to cost them far more because that is the nature of owning and running a car. 
First Group have won some praise in parts of their operation by lowering fares, and whilst this is welcome on the face of it, it won't work everywhere. It is also my experience that in some of these areas, the fares represented poor value for money in any case, so fair (fare?) play to First for bringing them down to more realistic levels.
I notice some disdain at the new headline bus fare of £2.10 for a single journey from January on National Express West Midlands buses. Actually, this is still one of the cheapest areas for bus travel in the UK. Is the issue here though, that whilst you can go quite a distance for £2.10, it is also perceived as expensive for shorter trips. The issue here is the amount of fraud that used to go on when there were cheaper single tickets available. So look at the actions of the something-for-nothing brigade, dear ranter, when asking why there aren't cheaper fares for shorter trips. 
Why do bus and rail fares have to rise in the first place? Costs, including fuel, continue to rise. Investment continues. We've seen a lot of new buses and trains in recent times, and the railway has record spending in the next few years. Some may say this necessary, but actually we need even more of it. And someone has to pay. London has benefited from huge transport investment in more recent times, but it is absolutely necessary to cope with the population explosion in the capital. That plan of investment now needs to radiate outwards across the country. But it also needs to be coupled to political will to free up road space for buses to deliver what people actually want - more reliable journeys. Bus operators can buy new shiny kit - and they increasingly do - but they need the path ahead to be free to deliver a good service. 
So spare us please local Councillors stoking the rhetoric on "unjustified" fare increases. They need to show some long-term vision on making transport more reliable instead of short-term easy-on-the-tongue statements designed to capture votes at the next local elections. Some local Councillors are excellent, but we have far too many who don't "get it". 
Only when we have really effective local public transport constantly will we be able to view fare increases as something other than a necessary evil.       

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