The Saturday following Christmas was a calamitous day for rail passengers travelling from King’s Cross and Paddington stations, this came just a week before rail fares had their annual rise. This led Patrick McLoughlin, the Secretary of State for Transport, to face some important questions in the House of Commons on Monday (5th January). The disruption at King’s Cross was caused by over running engineering works, which is now an ever regular cause of rail passengers’ despair, McLoughin called this “totally unacceptable” and apologised for the chaos.
This solitary example does just make you wonder how rail fare rises are justified.
When looking at the breakdown of the price paid for a ticket, only 3% is profit for the companies. The opinion that rail companies are taking higher profits at the cost of the consumer is dumbfounded. Rail companies are actually investing, as 26% of your train fare goes towards improving the rail network and 22% to necessary maintenance. However, this investment isn’t being seen, as we are still way behind where other countries are at with their rail services.
Of course the Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Michael Dugher, used the public frustration with rail fare rises as a cheap political attack on the Conservatives. Dugher stated that passengers have seen their ‘fares rocket’ under the Conservative government. Dugher’s claims may be true when put in the 5 year context of the coalition government but this is just a continuation of the trend which began under Labour in 2004. In 2004 Blair’s Labour introduced new government policy which allowed the rise of regulated rail fares by the Retail price Index measurement of inflation plus 1%. This has meant that since 2004 rail fares have continually risen above inflation leading to a public loss of faith with rail companies. The aim was to pass on the cost of investing in the railways to the passenger and that has worked to some extent. Subsequently, we have reached a stage where passengers are fed up with funding investment. This is because many passengers are now travelling on services which are overly filled and are frequently delayed.
With the general election looming parties have begun to outline their main focusses to try and woo voters, in a country that has never been as out of touch with politicians. Rail fares, amongst other things, will come into the political battle ground this spring as the Greens have already thrown their hat into the ring with their plans of an average 10% cut to rail fares. This idea will appease voters but how this would quite work in practice is yet to be seen. Re-nationalisation is a thought that many would agree with, a way to take back the railways into public hands in a hope to reduce rail fares. A re-nationalised railway network would make the government accountable for any failings that would take place, and for passengers this could be a welcomed change.
To lay blame with anyone for the failings of Britain’s rail services, in my opinion, would be unjust. Both rail companies and decades of previous governments can be held accountable, Britain’s railways have been majorly under invested in for years and the only way to right this wrong is to invest. But to invest means that more money is needed which brings us back to needing fare rises to fund the investment. A vicious circle arises where somebody has to cough up to invest but who will it be; the government, rail companies or the passengers?
By Christopher Middlehurst
[Image Credit: kaysgeog]