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Train fares: everyone knows they’re wrong, but no government is brave enough to fix them

The Man Who Pays His Way: Rail is set to fail unless ministers are honest about sharp price rices

Sunday 03 March 2024 06:00 GMT
Price sensitive: passengers using ticket machines at a London station
Price sensitive: passengers using ticket machines at a London station (Simon Calder)

Just when the trains could get no worse: seamlessly following on from the latest bout of industrial action, rail fares have increased. Someone who shuttles between Peterborough and London has endured 20 months (and counting) of regular strikes by unhappy rail workers, interspersed with frequent failures of track, signal and overhead wires. And they wake this morning to find the cost of commuting with an annual season ticket has risen by over £450.

It could have been much worse, the government insists. For reasons that no one seems able to recall, the annual fare rise each new year was set according to the retail price index in the previous July. The faintly arbitrary figure last summer was 9 per cent, which would have made that unhappy commuter £825 worse off. Instead, the rise is “only” 4.9 per cent. As an anytime ticket from Bristol to Cardiff or from Leeds to Manchester goes up by £1, a cynical passenger might conclude the figure was chosen for political expediency, allowing ministers to claim they had nearly halved the increase and kept it under 5 per cent.

The general secretary of the biggest rail union, Mick Lynch, called the rise a “slap in the face” for travellers, with “massive fare increases proving once again what a categorical failure the fragmented privatised system is”. But we don’t have a “fragmented privatised system” any more. Since Covid, the railways are effectively nationalised. The government tells train operators – many of which it owns – which trains to run and how much to charge.

The government, as well as Labour, are aware (I hope) that moving the fares needle by a few degrees this way or that is simply avoiding, and exacerbating, the real problem with rail fares. The whole system is rotten, unfair and full of anomalies. Between Bristol and London, for example, nobody who’s aware of “split ticketing” would ever dream of buying a ticket straight through. Much better to deploy the Didcot Dodge and save £40 by buying one ticket to Didcot Parkway and another from there. No need to change trains. So rife are such opportunities that Trainline (a private company) is running an ad campaign extolling the virtues of split ticketing. Meanwhile, prospective travellers perceive a baffling system full of traps designed to rip them off, and find another way to reach their destination. And I don’t blame them.

Anyone who cares deeply for the future of the railway knows the whole labyrinthine muddle needs to be swept away and replaced with simple, “single-leg” tickets. At the moment passengers with the temerity to want to return tomorrow rather than today, or divert on their way back to visit a cathedral or a granny, can see the fare almost double. And even with these zany prices, the railway is still managing to cost taxpayers a staggering £250 per second in subsidy. During a three-minute interview on this subject I gave to BBC Radio 4’s PM programme on Friday evening, another £45,000 of public funds poured into the bottomless pit of railway finance.

Examples of good practice and the way ahead do exist: on days when Northern is actually running trains, I routinely buy a ticket for a specific train as I walk to the station in Blackpool or Bridlington, because I know from plenty of experience that the excellent Northern app will offer a reasonable price. The ticket is labelled “Advance”, but since you can buy it 10 minutes ahead you need not have the foresight of the gods to avail of a decent deal.

We have a system which is failing everyone, and agreement on what needs to change. So why are we waiting? The Treasury, which resents the billions that are ploughed into the railways, fears that subsidies might have to rise. It is plain that the process of rationalisation will mean some fares will rise sharply. No minister wants to be the one called out in the media for trebling the cheapest Manchester-Stockport fare (currently just 70p). But rise it must, while others fall, or rail will fail.

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