Mary Dejevsky: Don't fall for commuter sob stories

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The Independent Online

If there is anything more infuriating than the predictable New Year fare increases on public transport, it is the equally predictable whingeing on the part of suburban rail commuters. Year after year they complain that they are uniquely victimised because they don't have a choice. They are captive passengers, crammed every day into obsolete rolling stock, sitting ducks for above-inflation fare rises.

We are not talking only about London here. Something similar would apply to Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol and other conurbations that are ringed with green and pleasant places to live. Rail commuters' lobbyists seek out those who look and sound least like the bowler-hatted City gents of yore and let them loose to tug at the public's heart strings. It is beyond time that their bluff was called.

All of those commuting from – let's take one of the more egregious examples, Sevenoaks in Kent (c.30 minutes to Charing Cross, season ticket up by 87 per cent over 10 years) – have made a calculation. They have totted up the cost/size ratio of housing in London, the quality of the environment and the proximity of a school – state or private – to which they are prepared to entrust their offspring; they have factored in the time and cost of commuting, and they have decided that, on balance, the package is worth it. That is a choice, one derived, to be sure, from economics as well as personal preferences, but it is a choice nonetheless.

The choice aspect alone would undermine the rail commuters' argument that they are uniquely put-upon. But there are others. To believe "outraged of Tonbridge 2013", you would have thought there had been a swingeing above-inflation rise of, say at least 10 per cent. In fact, the average rise is 3.9 per cent, and even the biggest rises (season tickets from Kent coastal towns to London) have been just over 6 per cent (£300 on a fare of almost £5,000). No price rise is welcome, but how much did you shell out for your iPad?

Fares for public transport generally are high compared with those paid by most travellers on the Continent, and it can be argued that, as a public good, public transport should be cheaper. But fares in the UK can also be ridiculously low, which shows where there might be room for adjustment. First: stop all the special offers and reintroduce a direct relationship between the distance travelled and the fare charged. Retain a peak-time supplement, by all means, but ensure that it is a supplement and not a penalty; crowded trains are punishment enough.

Second: stop all the complicated card discounts, including for families. Child fares should be enough.

Third: make it easier to buy a ticket and reduce fines so they are payable on the spot. Last year's decision by the Gatwick Express to make people buy tickets before boarding invites unwitting evasion, and the same applies to many mainline trains. What is wrong with expecting to buy a ticket on the train, if not all seats have been booked?

So this time next year, complain about the fare rises by all means. It would be unnatural not to. But ask yourself whether inflation plus 1 per cent is an unreasonable contribution to a better transport service, and don't take it as gospel that suburban rail commuters have it worse than anyone else.