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Britain’s train industry has gone off the rails

United Kingdom

A train from London to Manchester may cost you more than a flight from London to Tel Aviv. Mikey under a Creative Commons Licence

If you are a train user, you will have already heard the cheery news, timed to coincide with a change of tense when talking about the British summer (it was a hot one, wasn’t it?). As if becoming reacquainted with your waterproofs wasn’t depressing enough, train companies announced on 19 August that from January 2015, the average ticket price will rise by another 3.6 per cent, for the 12th consecutive year.

Since the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition government came into power in 2010, prices have risen by 24.9 per cent. Over the same period, average earnings have increased by just 10.7 per cent, with many having seen a freeze on their wages. Trade unions are warning that by 2018 there will be another 24-per-cent rise in fares.

To put the extortionate prices in perspective, on Thursday 6 November (a day picked at random) you could fly 3,600 kilometres from London Luton to as far as Tel Aviv, Israel for £99 ($165) and still have change left over compared to the cost of an advance single train ticket from London Euston to Manchester. Leaving at 6pm, this ticket would cost you £113 ($188). Choose to travel at 6.20pm and the same journey would be a bargain at £27 ($45). Buying your ticket on the day would set you back £160 ($266). Confused? Me too.

According to Minister for Rail Claire Perry, a lack of forward planning is where we are all going wrong. On BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme on 19 August, the Conservative MP said that people should not just ‘rock up’ to the station but avoid high fares by booking tickets in advance. Far be it for any government minister to lecture the public on how they should live their lives.

Ms Perry made just two trips on the train last year for work, one was in first class. Of course, should she need to pop into London from her constituency in Devizes, Wiltshire, for parliamentary matters more regularly, she can rest easy knowing that the taxpayer will foot the bill. Any ‘rocking up’ to the station that Claire Perry does out of work is easily afforded on her annual salary of £134,565 ($223,250).

Train fares in Britain are the highest per passenger kilometre of any country in Europe, yet it is one of few countries where passengers feel ‘lucky’ if they manage to bag a seat. On days when there is little room to stand, let alone sit, many of us simply shrug our shoulders and get out a book or phone, our only concern being which passenger we should stand butt-to-face with and which crotch-to-face.

The passengers hit hardest by fare rises are not city bankers but workers on minimum or low wage forced to commute from areas where they can afford to live to areas where there are jobs. They are those without the internet, who rarely get the cheapest deal booking over the phone or at the station. But all commuters, regardless of how much they have paid for their tickets, are treated with contempt by train companies.

The industry and the government should take heed though: commuters’ simmering frustration may soon boil over. The latest figures released by rail consumer organization Passenger Focus show that only 31 per cent of customers think that they are getting value for money and a YouGov Poll in November 2013 found that 66 per cent of those surveyed were in favour of returning the railways to public ownership.

The East Coast mainline has been publicly owned for five years and it is now the best run and most efficient operator in Britain. It has returned 0.6 pence per passenger mile – a total of over £1 billion ($1.7 billion) – to the taxpayer in the last five years, enabling reinvestment. Compare this with Northern Line, which takes a state subsidy of 51.5 pence (85 cents) per passenger mile. But in the wisdom of a government addicted to cuts and privatization, East Coast will be sold back to a private operator in February 2015.

The privatization of the rail industry is nonsensical. The benefits of some privately run industries – the presence of competition keeping prices low and efficiency high with little cost to the taxpayer – does not exist in the train industry. The railway is a natural monopoly and the only way that this can be seen as ‘fair’ is for different companies to enter bidding wars to run the service every few years. Short-term contracts offer little incentive for companies to invest profits to provide a better service. The state and passengers end up subsidizing the huge costs of the railway, but with none of the benefits of the industry being in public hands. In 2012/13, taxpayers paid £5.2 billion ($8.6 billion) to train operators in direct and indirect subsidies. The companies paid back just £1.2 billion ($2 billion). They kept £172 million ($285 million) in profits and paid out £204 million ($338 million) in dividends to shareholders.

The railway is a public service and should be run as one. Trains are not just a form of transport benefiting the individual, they are a common good: they reduce the number of cars on the road, lowering the amount of congestion and pollution; they connect people to jobs, and can be a lifeline for those with no alternative.

Twenty years ago, a disaster occurred when former prime minister John Major sold off the trains. But this damage can be reversed. Let’s own our railway, and improve it. 

Take action:

Visit We Own It and sign their petition calling for a Public Service Users Bill.

The Green Party is the only political party calling for trains to be brought back into public ownership. Get involved.

Read Passenger Focus’s research and publications on the train industry.

Add your voice to Bring Back British Rail.

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