Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Rail passengers pay the price

If you thought rail fares were high now, wait until the transport secretary Ruth Kelly is finished with you. Yesterday she announced plans to expand the rail network – and passengers are going to pay through the nose for much-needed improvements. Under the plans, annual public subsidies for the railways will be slashed from about 50% to around 25%. Income from passengers will rise from £6.7 billion in 2009 to £9 billion by 2014. Half of the projected increase in fare revenue will come from increased prices.

Though the rail network is nominally state owned, it operates on commercial lines while the train companies are in private hands. The Brown government is continuing where Blair left off in reducing subsidies and using control over rail franchises to implement their policies. For example, Virgin Trains recently lost its cross-country franchise to another operator which offered to run the service on lower subsidies. This is another fine example of public-private partnership from the team that brought you the Great London Tube Fiasco, which produced the collapse of a major maintenance and upgrade contract last week.

Fares rose by an average of 10% at the beginning of the year. A series of further fare increases are scheduled for this year by Stagecoach, Arriva and Go-Ahead. Many commuters are feeling the pinch, especially as interest rates on mortgages have also risen, along with petrol and fuel prices. The simple fact is that New Labour does not believe in public transport in the full sense of the term. It rejects the idea that trains and buses should be part of a socially-useful service that works for the benefit of society as a whole. That sounds too much like Old Labour, or even Old Tory.

Today, both major parties start from commercial considerations and the operation of market principles. The Tories privatised the rail network and New Labour is moving towards the elimination of state subsidies altogether. The government’s attitudes was summed up perfectly this week when, in response to complaints from Passenger Focus about fares, a Department for Transport spokesman said: "The reality is that 6% of the population travels on railways. Why should people who don't use the railways regularly fund people who do?" After 10 years of New Labour, the cost of car travel has fallen while it has increased for buses and trains. So where’s the financial incentive for people to leave their cars and get to work by public transport? There isn’t any and there won’t be. So much for making a contribution to tackling climate change.

Apart from commuters, people who want to visit friends or family in other parts of Britain, or go on holiday by train, face extortionate prices. If you want to travel the 200 miles from London to York, and are prepared to travel after 9.30, the cheapest return fare is £75.10. But that’s only if you book on the Internet. If you can’t, that’s another 10% on top. If you need to leave during the rush hour, it’s going to cost you over £120 for a return ticket to York with GNER’s “business saver”. In Italy, where the state continues to subsidise the rail network, next Monday you could catch the 08.55 express from Milan for the 175-mile journey to Venice, returning whenever you wanted, for the princely sum of £34.00. Get me out of here!

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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