In the wake of the train fare increases announced yesterday, the Rail Minister, Theresa Villiers, made what has become the Government's stock response: investment in the rail network is desperately needed, and deficit reduction is the overwhelming priority. Therefore the burden of paying for train services must be shifted away from the taxpayer and on to passengers.
Consumers already struggling with VAT increases, rising food bills and record fuel prices will find Ms Villiers's argument hard to take. Fare rises of up to 13 per cent are way above inflation and will be acutely felt. Recent research shows that price is the reason why half of Britons already do not travel on trains, while 70 per cent of those that do say they are unwilling to pay more, even in return for better infrastructure.
But the Government does have a case. Notwithstanding questions over timing, few people question that public spending must be reined in. And Britain's rail network clearly needs major investment. Rush-hour overcrowding is worsening, particularly on commuter routes into London. Similarly, Crossrail and Thameslink are long overdue, as is the rail electrification programme. There is also much to be said for using price incentives to nudge travellers away from heavily-congested, peak times.
That said, simply slapping on huge fare increases is not the solution. Most obviously, rachetting up prices runs counter to the supposed aim of encouraging people out of their cars. The greener alternative to driving should not be unaffordable.
Then there is the issue of fairness. The increases only apply to so-called "regulated" fares, such as season tickets and standard saver returns. So while prices skyrocket for some – notably those who travel the most and have little choice when they do so – others can still pick up bargains on the internet.
It is not just a question of rail passengers who are left at best baffled, at worst angry, when the person in the next seat to them has paid markedly less to make the same journey, and for no discernible reason. It is also a question of appalling waste. Britain's Byzantine rail-fare structure was a central issue highlighted by Sir Roy McNulty in his recent report into the railways.
McNulty detailed an industry that is bloated, fragmented and wildly inefficient in comparison with European counterparts. Britain's railways cost 40 per cent more to run than France's SNCF, while costs to passengers and taxpayers are nearly a third higher. There is £1bn that could be stripped out, as part of a "better deal" for passengers, McNulty found.
To yank the rail sector into shape is no easy task. It needs everything from strong leadership to a full review of ticket prices to structural change. But such a programme should be a priority, with sustained backing from the Government and an accelerated timetable.
The only possible justification for the latest fare increases is that they are only a stop-gap, pending major reform. Otherwise they are punitive, unfair, and unsustainable. Passengers need a better deal as well as a better railway. So far there is little sign of either. Is it any wonder that commuters were protesting in London's Waterloo station yesterday?Reuse content