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 – single parents struggling to put an affordable roof over their head and find decent schools for their children, or those travelling unusual distances (Nottingham to London twice a week was one of this year’s sob stories) – and let them loose to tug at the public’s heartstrings. It is beyond time that their bluff was called.
All 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). The 3.9 per cent is above the current rate of inflation (2.7 per cent), but not by a huge amount, and below inflation as it was for much of 2011. No price rise is welcome, but how much did you shell out for an iPad?
Nor are rail commuters most harshly hit this year, or indeed most years. The fare increases that came into effect this week on London Transport averaged 4.2 per cent, in spite of the fact that Londoners really don’t have a choice about using public transport unless they want to go everywhere by Boris Bike – the (modest) charges for which have doubled.
As for car-users around the country – and there are those who have to use cars because of the scarcity of public transport or because they have small children or elderly dependents who cannot walk far – their costs rose by 50 per cent in the decade to 2012, and that is without London weighting for the Congestion Charge and parking. Drivers, of course, have their lobbyists, too, but because the 21st-century canon decrees that car is bad and rail is good, train users attract the more sympathetic press.
That rail commuters are not alone in their suffering, of course, does not negate the fact that fares for public transport generally are high compared with those paid by most travellers on the Continent and that, as a public good, public transport should be cheaper. Yet some of the extra cost here reflects the need to modernise neglected infrastructure. You see the problem as soon as you travel on a really modern transport system, in somewhere like Seoul or Hong Kong. Should passengers not share some of the burden?
But fares – rail fares, that is – 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. The rail companies may say that £5 fares on some routes at some times enable people to travel and fill seats that would otherwise remain empty, but the corollary of this is sky-high fares on certain routes and almost everywhere if you need to travel at short notice. Continental prices feel lower across the board because they don’t have our “bargains”, but those bargains introduce a distortion that we should not have either.
Second: Stop all the complicated card discounts, including for families. Child fares should be enough. At the other end of the age range, free or cheaper transport should be only for those of state pensionable age or in receipt of disability benefits.
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.