There seems to be a lot of anger from commuters about the latest rise in rail prices, which is a shame as there is a logic to the pricing system, which is that rail companies must be planning to rebrand their services for the luxury market. Soon there will be adverts in Sunday magazines, next to the ones for cruises up the Nile, saying “For that trip of a lifetime you truly deserve, why not enjoy a majestic 36 minutes aboard the glorious 7.58 from Lewisham to Charing Cross. Marvel at the vistas of the celebrated industrial estate outside New Cross, and experience the splendour of being stuck outside London Bridge for an indefinite period for NO EXTRA CHARGE. A lifetime of memories for only £8,599.99.”
Foreign governments will soon issue warnings to their citizens who travel here, similar to those given to people planning to sail past Somalia. They’ll begin, “Travelling on a train is extremely hazardous. The local brigands employ a menacing ploy known as ‘peak time fares’. If you’re caught by these villains before 10.30 or between 3.15 and God knows when, they will demand hundreds of pounds that you have to pay if you ever want to see your loved ones again.”
In a couple of days we’ll find out that the passengers who’ve been rescued from that ship in the Antarctic were only on there as it was a cheaper way of getting from Hull to London than by using the East Coast Line.
The transport minister Stephen Hammond reassured us that yesterday’s rise was the lowest rise above inflation for the last few years, because “this government recognises the concerns that people have about rail fares”. So they’re boasting not that they’ve reduced the fares, or even that they’ve put them up by the same rate as everything else has gone up, but that the increase is not so much above inflation as it was all the other years.
To find a reason to brag in that statistic is genius. It’s like telling your neighbours, “You should be grateful. This year when I p***ed through your letterbox, the puddle I left was a smaller increase in volume over the previous year’s puddles than at any time since 2007.”
Thousands of commuters now pay more than £5,000 a year for their tickets, to travel such intergalactic distances as Basingstoke to Waterloo or Dover to Victoria. If the prices went up any more, the train companies would legally own the passengers. They’d be entitled to give you a new name and sell your children, and compel you to tend to Richard Branson’s livestock on a Sunday.
Despite the increases, the trains will continue to be packed, because those on board have no other way of getting to work. But rail executives must tell their AGM, “The 8.22 from Cheadle Hulme to Manchester Piccadilly has proved such a popular brand the passengers are prepared to be asphyxiated by the time they arrive. Well done, everyone.”
The Government claims the rises are valid, as there will soon be £16 billion of investment in the railways, and the extra fares will pay for that. So the investment that privatisation was supposed to ensure, can only happen if they take it off us in the first place. It’s like deciding that as your house needs decorating, the best way to pay for it is to invite burglars round to rob whatever they please, every year, in the hope that one day out of gratitude they buy you a pot of paint.
To be fair there is one area in which extra investment is evident. Over a billion pounds a year goes to dividends and written off debts for the rail companies, that didn’t receive anything before privatisation. So as they’ve invested in their shareholders, it can’t be long before they get round to investing in other less essential parts of the rail network, like trains and bits of track and stuff.
Rail fares in Britain were already more expensive than anywhere else in Europe, but like true champions the rail companies want to win by the widest margin possible.
For example, a return ticket from London to Manchester in the morning costs £274. Charging these amounts may seem simple, but requires training staff to be able to say the words, “That will be £274” with a straight face. Many drop out, unable to complete the sentence without giggling or crying, or screaming, “You could hire the British Lions to drag you up the M6 in a bloody jacuzzi for cheaper than that”, but we should honour the tough souls who make it through, dedicated to attracting the investment we all depend on.
But at least the rail companies make travel exciting and unpredictable, as it should be. If only it had always been run by people with this sense of adventure, Jules Verne’s novel would have begun, “Phileas Fogg stood at London Bridge in hearty spirits, eager to venture forth and commence his adventurous journey. ‘I wish for a carriage to Dover,’ he said. ‘That shall be £675 and 82 pence please,’ said the inspector. And so Phileas returned to his abode and spent 80 days looking for a fare he could afford on a baffling website, until he realised it was cheaper to lose his bet than get a ticket with Capital bloody Connect.”