The Big Question: Why is rail travel so expensive, and could it be made more affordable?

Why are we asking this now?

We’ve all heard the anecdotes from friends returning from trips to the continent which tell of their delight at travelling on spacious, air-conditioned trains for a fraction of the price of a similar journey here. In the past, those anecdotes, save for a few brave attempts by some enterprising MPs, have been all we have had to go on in trying to make a comparison between the cost of rail travel in Britain and our European neighbours. Until now, that is. The rail industry watchdog, Passenger Watch, has published its analysis of the relative cost of rail travel in Britain compared to seven other European nations. It will not make pleasant reading for the Government.

So how do we compare?

In terms of price, not well. The analysis looked at three different kinds of commuter journeys to the “principle city” in the eight European countries: short commutes of between five and 16km, medium journeys of between 17 and 40km, and longer trips of between 41 and 80km. It found that in all three categories, “unrestricted day return” fares, which allow commuters to take any train they choose, were more expensive in Britain than any of the other countries examined.

Commuters making a journey in the medium band have to pay 59 per cent more than those in Switzerland, the second most expensive country in that category, while the fare is more than three times the cost of commuters making a similar trip in Spain.

What about other types of tickets?

The price of season tickets for short, medium and long commutes to London, Britain’s “principle city”, were all more expensive here than anywhere else examined. Medium-distance season tickets bought here cost more than four times the amount of an equivalent ticket in Italy. Prices are more comparable in terms of off-peak services, although fares in Britain were still either the highest or second highest in Europe.

The price of the most restrictive long-distance return ticket in the UK, in which a passenger’s ticket is only valid on the trains they nominate, were around the same cost as fully flexible tickets for similar journeys across Europe.

Any good news?

Yes. In terms of the number of services provided, Britain is at the top of the class. We have more trains per hour in the short and longer commuter categories than our European rivals. We also perform well in terms of the number of long-distance trains offered, with more long-distance services available to our second city, Birmingham, than elsewhere in Europe.

Is the study credible?

It is the most authoritative attempt to make this comparison to date. It is the first time that a comprehensive, Europe-wide study has been completed. The study was commissioned by former Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly amid concerns about fares and the performance of Britain’s rail network after low passenger satisfaction ratings emerged.

What is pushing prices up?

Passenger Focus largely blames the high fare prices on the Government’s determination to lower the subsidy that the taxpayer currently hands to the rail industry. The Government wants passengers to bear 75 per cent of the costs, up from the current 50-50 split. Others blame the high price paid for rail franchises by rail operators, but the Government is adamant that these will not be renegotiated.

So what is the answer?

The call from Passenger Focus is for a reversal of the policy to cut the Government subsidy, and the introduction of a blanket limit on the amount by which fares can be increased. It wants poor performing operators to be prevented from implementing the full fare increased allowed.

Will the Government listen?

Passenger Focus is not just a pressure group – it was set up by the Government to act as an independent watchdog for passengers across Britain. As such, it does have a close relationship with the Government and is regularly consulted on decisions made by the Department for Transport. Whether it has much influence on final decisions is a matter of debate. Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon received a copy of the report last week and its contents look set to be the topic for discussion when his transport minister, Lord Adonis, is quizzed by MPs next week.

Could fares come down?

The Government is not likely to change its approach on reducing the subsidy given to the rail system. It expects fares to fall this year anyway, as inflation falls. It also says that it would take an extra £500m from the taxpayer to bring prices down to the European level, which it believes would be an unfair burden. But outrage over the size of some of the rail fare increases at the start of this year – more than 10 per cent in some places – could well concentrate the minds of ministers.

Any other issues?

Ticketing is still incredibly confusing and needs to be simplified, Passenger Focus also made clear in this report. How right they are. Attempts have been made to simplify the presentation of tickets, with an array of “saver”, “super saver” and “advanced saver” tickets being replaced by peak, off-peak and advanced purchase tickets. A lot more needs to be done. The advent of internet booking sites has exposed the fact that there are still many quirks in the system that consumers find baffling, such as two single tickets being cheaper than a return, and the purchase of a series of tickets costing less than one through-ticket.

Are the railways all bad?

Away from the report, the news is not all bad by any means. While price is a real issue, rail services have been improving and the general satisfaction rate among the public is now up to 83 per cent and the punctuality rate is now very high, with nine out of 10 trains running on time. That has been helped by much heavier investment, as the good record in terms of the number of services demonstrates. But overcrowded trains combined with high prices are still a problem, as shown by the fact that only 43 per cent of passengers believe they are receiving value for money.

Is the service being improved?

There are some developments that will come as a real plus for rail users. First of all, the Government has just awarded a £7.5bn contract to a consortium led by Japanese train builder Hitachi, to build 1,400 new engines and coaches to ferry commuters between London and Cambridge, Leeds, Hull, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh. They will also be used to link London with the Thames Valley and South Wales. They will replace creaking trains that are as much as three decades old and will have room for more passengers.

That’s not all. Lord Adonis, who is proving to be a workaholic in his new role as transport minister, is also said to be firming up plans to build a high speed rail link to the Midlands. Mr Hoon is another a fan of the project. That should take some pressure off the rail network, ease overcrowding and improve journey times. So while travelling by rail in the UK may be expensive, the conditions and speed of services are set to improve.

Is the British rail system the worst in Europe?

Yes...

* Commuter journeys using almost all types of tickets were found to be most expensive in Britain

* Some fares increased by more than 10 per cent this year – a big hit on consumers during a recession

* Satisfaction rates on some commuter routes are below 30 per cent because of cost and overcrowding

No...

* Though tickets are expensive, taxpayers fund a smaller subsidy than other countries

* Britain comes top of the class in terms of the number of commuter and long-distance services available

* Improvements have been made, trains are more punctual and more people are using them

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