The travelling public is, unsurprisingly, indignant at the news that rail fares in England are to rise by 6.2 per cent in January – double the rate of inflation. Indeed, some fares will increase by as much as 11 per cent. And for services that are often overcrowded and unreliable.
The Government argues that the extra money will help fund the huge investment needed to make up for decades of neglect. In the past, the cost of the railways was split roughly 50-50 between passengers and taxpayers. But at a time of deficit reduction, the aim is to shift the balance so that those who are doing the travelling pay more.
On the surface, the case sounds fair. The reality, however, is rather more complex. After all, the railway is both a common good – available for use by us all when we choose to use it – and also a direct benefit to drivers. The more people there are on the trains, the fewer cars there are on the roads. Rail is also the greener alternative: ratcheting up rail prices makes a mockery of efforts to persuade drivers out of their cars. Most compelling of all, it is commuters, who have no choice about when they travel, who are being hit the hardest, effectively subsidising the irregular traveller.
The Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, claims inflation-busting increases are unavoidable, for the next five years, in order to fund the massive upgrades needed to cut future costs. But the result is some of the most expensive train journeys in Europe, and all too often a service that is at best mediocre in return. The rail network certainly needs major investment. But huge fare increases are not the only answer. As the McNulty report revealed, Britain's fragmented and inefficient network costs 40 per cent more to run than its French equivalent. Stronger leadership, structural change and a full review of all ticket prices are necessary.
Rail should be the cornerstone of our national transport infrastructure. At any time, such sharp fare rises would be problematic. With incomes squeezed and the economic outlook bleak, they are wholly unacceptable. It is time for Ms Greening, and her colleagues at the Treasury, to think again.