'Rail fare hikes are just discrimination, pure and simple'

Commuters are furious at the latest rail fares increases

Commuters are furious at the latest rail fares increases

Monday, January 8, 2018

Of course no one likes any price increase, but the problem is that rail fares have risen ahead of people's incomes, meaning that rail fares, already the most expensive in Europe, are eating further and further into people's pay packets. 

This is a very deliberate policy on the part of the Government, which wants to shift the cost of running the railway away from the taxpayer and more and more on to the passenger. This may seem fair enough, but the consequence of this is that passengers are being priced off the railway and onto our ever more congested and polluted roads, and are being actively discouraged from travelling to work. 

This is why we've seen protests at railway stations across the country, and some Conservative backbenchers are thinking that now enough is enough, and are putting pressure on ministers. It seems, however, that they've taken a long time to realise that this policy is not sustainable, and that rail passengers have votes too. 

The rail fare increases might be easier to swallow if the Government was being consistent in the way it taxes transport generally, but there is a real disparity between the way the Government treats motorists and rail passengers. 

Fuel duty for petrol and diesel has been frozen since 2010, but in the same period rail fares have risen by more than 30%, a blatant discrimination against the rail passenger, and flying in the face of any green credentials that the government might claim to have. 

The Government may have felt able to get away with this policy because of the relentless growth in passenger numbers, which have doubled in the last 20 years. However, there is evidence that the number of people buying season tickets is beginning to fall, showing that the Government has succeeded in its unintended consequence of pricing people off the railways.

Another problem is in the way that the Government calculates the level of rail fare increase. Prices are only going up in line with inflation, right? Well not quite. There is more than one way to measure inflation, and the Government uses the retail price index (RPI) when working out how much to jack up ticket prices.

For almost everything else, the Government uses the consumer price index (CPI), which is widely regarded as a much more accurate measure of inflation, and which the Government claims is its preferred measure. Guess which one is higher? Of course it's RPI, which is why rail fares are racing ahead of people's incomes.

Would re-nationalisation improve things? There's no doubt that the idea is popular among voters and rail travellers, who perceive the privatised rail companies as profiteers ripping them off. 

This is probably slightly unfair, as overall the profit margin is fairly tight at around 3%, hence the Government's claim that 97p in the pound is being reinvested in the railway.  Wouldn't one hundred pence in the pound be better? Quite possibly, but passengers would see very little difference to their rail service, with the same trains being operated by the same staff, as we saw when Directly Operated Railways took over East Coast. 

The reality is that the privatised railway is still essentially run by the Government who would be holding the purse strings in either scenario. The good news is that a government with no majority is probably more sensitive than usual to public opinion, and Railfuture will continue to shout for a better railway for all of us.

Bruce Williamson is a leading member of Rail Future, an organisation campaigning for better rail services for passengers and freight.