Simon Calder: The answer to this problem is staring us in the face


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The Independent Online

Many of the long-suffering travellers aboard this morning's early trains from Macclesfield to London Euston will have paid £145 one-way for a "walk-up" ticket for the 109-minute journey. Were the 6.2 per cent average increase to be applied at Macclesfield, the Cheshire set would be paying £154 next year – more than £1 per mile.

From the bickering between passengers' groups and Government over who should bear the pain, you might conclude this is a binary issue with more cash required from either travellers or taxpayers. Yet a solution to the rail price crisis is waiting, neglected, in Sir Roy McNulty's report, Realising the Potential of GB Rail published last year.

Antiquated rest-break agreements, observed Sir Roy, mean many drivers spend the majority of their working time not driving trains, while replacing a station ticket machine involves "at least 10 decision-making stages". In the 15 months since the whole inglorious and expensive muddle was revealed, there has been no demonstration of collective will to extract more efficiency from the railways.

The welcome recent increase in rail travel (two-thirds up in 16 years) should have triggered economies of scale. Instead, our 21st-century railways are hobbled by Victorian legislation and built-in inefficiencies.

Fortunately, the UK enjoys the most efficient aviation system in Europe, and its buses are equally good. The more that travellers switch away from £1-per-mile rail journey, the quicker the inertia blocking more efficient trains will end.

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