It was the ironic television image of the week. “We always pay more but they never seem to spend any money on the railways,” the commuter at King’s Cross fumed in an interview about the latest fare rises. Yet filling the screen behind him was the station’s magnificent new concourse, one of Europe’s finest – just opened at a cost of £550m.
But let’s not allow a few facts to get in the way of the great British sport of bashing the railways at new year. Take a few panto “robber barons” from the private train companies, stir in a few clichés about leaves on the line and the wrong kind of snow. Roll out across empty hours of airtime and newspaper columns while there’s not much else going on – and you have the perfect recipe to accompany the misery of returning to work after a long Christmas break.
What a shame the seasonal news vacuum wasn’t used to examine what is really happening on the rails. Because Britain’s railways are infinitely more of a success story than we are led to believe. Mr Angry Commuter might have pondered, for instance, on the £14bn new Crossrail line beneath London – Europe’s largest construction project– due to open in 2018. Or the £6bn Thameslink scheme being built beneath his feet, connecting a host of new destinations north and south of the capital. The new £700m Great Western electrification will bring fast new trains to Oxford, Bristol and Cardiff. A similar scheme costing £500m will slash times from St Pancras to Nottingham and Sheffield. And none of this includes the High Speed 2 link.
So let’s take the hype out of the fares rise row. The average increase is 2.8 per cent: the same as the retail price index measure of inflation, although some train companies are allowed to charge a couple of per cent more on some routes, so long as other fares go down. (Funny no one seems to mention these.) And the average fare paid by the British rail passenger is not £500 or even £50 – but a mere £5.25.
Who are the “hard-pressed commuters” so cherished by headline writers? They are overwhelmingly travellers in prosperous London and the South-east. It is a sobering fact that fewer than 10 per cent of all passenger journeys in Britain are by train, the vast majority beginning or ending in the capital. At the same time only 58 per cent of the cost of running the railways comes from fares – a proportion that, sensibly, governments want progressively to lift. Sure, subsidised European fares are cheaper, but try telling struggling taxpayers in Cumbria or rural Wales, with no access to a station and paying sky-high petrol prices, that they should fork out more to featherbed wealthy office workers from the capital’s suburbs.
Even with the current increases, London season ticket holders are getting something of a bargain. A season from Southampton to London costs just over £5,000. Allowing for holidays, that’s about £25 a day for the 160-mile round trip; the cheapest off-peak return would cost £40. By comparison, a single Starbucks latte on the way to work each day will set you back £500 a year. And the revenue from these journeys contributes to the billions of pounds of investment heading down the line, which also includes nearly 2,000 new carriages for London commuters and the replacement of most of the Inter-City express fleet.
It is not just pampered southerners who will benefit. The first trains were rolled out last month on a new electrified network being built around Manchester – the latest boom area for rail travel. A £300m, 30-mile railway is being built from Edinburgh through the Scottish Borders to open in 2015 – our first brand new domestic main line in more than a century. Another £400m is being spent electrifying tracks in the Welsh valleys.
So why don’t we seem to know about all this “good news”. One reason is poor communication by the fragmented rail industry, whose self-promotion is mostly timid and reactive. Nigel Harris, managing editor of the leading industry journal Rail, bluntly calls this record “dire”. The other is political short-termism. Transport secretaries (do you remember Kelly, Adonis, Hammond or Greening?) have come and gone as quickly as the relatives of North Korean dictators. Patrick McLoughlin, the current incumbent, has done little to stir the public imagination, though he had a brief populist moment this week when he announced plans to scrap some first-class seats.
And – dare one suggest it – ministers and senior opinion formers might get out of their chauffeur-driven cars a bit more. I recently accompanied a national newspaper editor on one of the super-fast Virgin Pendolino trains to Glasgow. “Fantastic, these trains, aren’t they!” he said with the wonderment of a little boy when we reached Preston from Euston in just two hours.
This is not to imply that everything is tickety-boo down at the booking office. The byzantine ticket system of “off-peaks”, “savers”, “super-off peaks” needs to be scrapped. It is a dinosaur in a digital world. Network Rail also needs to manage its work practices more efficiently. And as well as modernising existing lines we should be opening up more of the railways disastrously shut by Beeching in the 1960s. Using an existing trackbed, for instance, we could easily have a second main line from London to Brighton.
But despite this week’s bluster, the biggest advocates for rail travel turn out to be the passengers themselves. Despite the fares, numbers are at their highest in history. More than 1.5 billion passengers opted to travel by train in the year to September – a rise of 56 per cent on a decade earlier, and a figure unthinkable in the old British Rail days. Our much-maligned railways must be doing something right.
Michael Williams’s latest book ‘Steaming To Victory: How Britain’s Railways Won The War’ will be published in March by Arrow, a division of Penguin Random House