Barely had the rail fare increase for England and Wales next year been revealed, than a pro-public transport pressure group rushed out a news release condemning the rises.
You could tell it had been prepared in advance because it was headed “Campaigners condemn rail fare rise of x per cent”.
In their understandable haste to criticise “this annual fiasco” of price hikes, they had neglected to replace the x with 3.5, that being RPI plus one per cent, the average increase stipulated by the Government.
Yet that moment of forgetfulness inadvertently went to the heart of the great railway debate. Whatever x happens to be, it will be regarded as excessive by many commuters, business travellers and people who simply want to escape for the weekend. They see any increase as an unwarranted penalty for using an environmentally responsible form of transport. At worst, they argue, fares should be capped at their present painful levels to make the train progressively more attractive than the car. Yet by imposing above-inflation fare rises, the tide will surely go in the wrong direction.
I have sympathy with that argument, but the rail debate needs to be seen in a wider context. For half a century, successive post-war Governments connived to neglect and substantially dismantle Britain’s railway network. Yet in the past decade, the decline in passenger numbers has dramatically reversed, with roughly 50 per cent more passengers on a network that has acquired precious little extra capacity.
While High Speed 2 is endlessly debated, the system is chronically overcrowded at rush hours and, increasingly, at weekends. Both the Coalition and Labour before it recognised that price is a blunt but effective instrument for squeezing out excessive demand.
Increasing a peak-time Birmingham-London ticket on Virgin Trains by £3 to £85 will, at the margin, divert demand. But those frustrated travellers won’t necessarily end up on the M40 or abandon their journey with "can't pay, won't go" exasperation. They can simply opt for a 20-minute longer journey on Chiltern Railways for about £63, or a 40-minute slower trip on London Midland for about £50. And then there’s always the coach: when was the last time you heard a Megabus or National Express passenger furious about fares?
If the good work recommended by Sir Roy McNulty’s report on the woefully high costs of Britain’s railway bears fruit, then one day x may finally dwindle to zero. Meanwhile, we travellers will continue to complain as we trundle around this crowded (but thankfully compact) nation, making the best we can of a lousy transportational bequest.