Another year, another inflation-busting hike for train fares. Season tickets went up by more than four per cent today and some "unregulated" fares (on non-commuter routes) soared by almost half. Nor is this a one-off hit to travellers' wallets. A decade of consecutive increases has left many commuters paying as much as 50 per cent more than in 2003. Cue much ire and another demonstration – this time at London's St Pancras station.
In fairness, there is no easy answer to the question of how to pay for the railways. The network is crying out for modernisation and expensive programmes such as electrification are long overdue. But although some increase in fares is unavoidable, there is a limit to what passengers can be expected to bear, particularly those relying on trains to get to work and with little choice as to where and when they travel.
There is, then, a reasonable case for taxpayers to meet some of the cost. After all, the rail network is a common good of benefit to all and decent – affordable – trains are central to encouraging drivers to make greener travel plans. But reform of our inefficient and fragmented rail industry, which costs around 40 per cent more to run than France's SNCF, must also be expedited. And more effort must be made to spread the investment costs more widely.
A shake-up of Britain's Byzantine fare structures would be a good place to start. Not only are passengers baffled by the incomprehensible array of tickets on offer, such a system is also hugely wasteful. An online bargain for one traveller simply bumps up the cost for their less organised, or simply less flexible, fellows. Equally, with money so tight, there must be a question mark over the availability of subsidised rail tickets to all over the age of 60, regardless of their financial circumstances.
To meet the railways' investment needs, the Government has pencilled in another five years of above-inflation fare rises. Yet England already has Europe's most expensive rail travel. More must be done to share the burden.