Simon Calder: Lower prices are the way to make train take the strain

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The Independent Online

At 6.25 this morning, the first flight from Manchester to London, operated by the Belgian airline VLM, was due to depart. Some time after 8 tonight, the final BMI departure takes off from Manchester to Heathrow. And in between, a further 30 aircraft will take off from Manchester for the half-hour hop (air-traffic control permitting). Today, like every other working day, 32 flights will add to the crowded skies in each direction.

Our love affair with domestic flights might look like harmless eccentricity; in fact, it represents gross delinquency. The comparable journey in Italy - Rome to Naples - sees only four flights daily each way. In Germany, Berlin to Hamburg gets just two a week. And thanks to France's flourishing rail network, no flights at all are scheduled between Paris and Lille.

So why should Air Berlin, BMI, British Airways, Jet2 and VLM make a decent living from flying between two cities where rail is the natural choice? At the start of this century, the answer was simple: decades of under-investment made the railways so unreliable that many passengers preferred to take their chances in the skies. Now that the train journey is reliably below two-and-a-quarter hours, the simple explanation is price.

For the fourth successive year, prices have risen by more than inflation. Yesterday, Virgin Trains increased the standard open return on the London Euston/ Manchester Piccadilly route by 8.4 per cent to £219. The company will point out that travellers who book far enough in advance and travel off-peak can find fares of £25 return. But anyone who asks for a peak-time return between London and Manchester will be quoted £219 return.

Coincidentally this is exactly the going rate for a bargain Heathrow/New York round-trip, only without the free meals, drinks and entertainment; and the transatlantic flight happens to cover 20 times the distance.

The government could cite the London/Manchester link as an example of the success derived from giving free rein to the market: five airlines and one train operator competing, as well as the road alternatives. Yet a transport policy that encourages such profligacy with scarce resources and the environment is profoundly mistaken - and immoral.

Britain is a small and crowded country that is ideally suited to rail travel. But because the network is basically 19th century, rather than 21st century as in France, Germany or Japan, rationing is undertaken by price - which explains the shocking fares.

Following the Tories' botched privatisation of the railways in the 1990s, the present government has presided over an expensive programme of improvements, and much of the network is reasonably reliable.

Railways are far too important to the nation's social and economic welfare to occupy the same space as easyJet or Ryanair; and the environment is far too precious for resources to be squandered on air links so short they barely reach cruising altitude.