This week the transport secretary Philip Hammond softened up the travelling public for the inevitable news that rail fares will be zooming north quicker than anything leaving Euston.
Under the current pricing system, the cost of tickets goes up by 1% more than the July retail price index - a measure of inflation - but according to Phil, "...this is not a normal year. The scale of the financial crisis that we have inherited means that we will have to make some tough decisions in the spending review, which concludes this autumn."
This is so wrong for so many reasons I'm going to use bullet points:
- Our train fares are already massive. A survey by Passenger Focus in 2009 found that turn-up-and-go rail fares in the UK were up to 87% higher than in the next most expensive European country, Germany.
- Our rail fares were three times as expensive as the cheapest country, The Netherlands.
- By the way, have you been on a train in Germany or The Netherlands? Having lived in Holland I can report that not once did their cheaply priced service ever suffer a signal failure or crawl along at two miles per hour because it was a Saturday. Never did I feel blessed not to be confronted by the three most dreaded words in the traveller's lexicon: 'rail replacement service' (I don't even know the Dutch translation.)
- Whilst it is true the Labour Government was too spineless to reform the current, costly railway 'system' it was introduced by the Tories when John Major sold off British Rail in one of the world's worst privatisations. Why is it so pants?
- Well, because the taxpayer now pays higher subsidies to private companies than we paid to state-owned British Rail. A report by Dr Richard Knowles, of Salford University, showed that passenger rail subsidies topped £1.34bn in 2002-2003 compared to £1.07bn in 1993-1994 under BR.
- But rail companies are still 'profitable', that is, they still make money and pay themselves immense bonuses because the bedraggled taxpayer covers their losses and then pays through the nose for a ticket to ride one of their arthritic trains, before being absolutely wrung dry in the refreshments carriage if they weren't wise enough to stock up in M&S first.
There are about 500 more potential bullet points for a system which manages to be both as crap and as expensive as Manchester City, and I'd urge you to add some more points below. However, back to Phil Hammond, who, like nearly 20 other members of the cabinet, is a millionaire and probably not particularly concerned with the cost of public transport. Private Eye magazine reported that in opposition Hammond railed (pardon me) against Network Rail, and the mega bonuses they paid their directors; NR own the tracks and he rightly pointed out that it "...is of course a private company, but one that is dependent on public funding." Well, now he is in government he can do the decent thing and return it to public ownership. In fact his statement seems to apply to all the train operators too.
The formula is simple - if they can't exist without a public subsidy they should be brought into public ownership because at the moment the taxpayer is taking the loss and the private sector is keeping the profit. The taxpayer picks up the pieces when a train operator runs out of steam, as was the case when National Express decided they couldn't make enough money out of its east coast franchise. No government would be able to walk away (like the private companies can and do) as people need to be able to get to work and travel and that seems to have been forgotten. Perhaps the railways are never going to be profitable but British people need them nonetheless.
Prior to the election the Lib Dems seemed to understand the importance of affordable rail travel (it is obviously better for the environment too) and had pledged to change the annual fare price rise formula to RPI minus 1%, meaning prices would always be lower than inflation. A pledge that has been forgotten now as the millionaires in government push through price hikes on tickets they will all claim on expenses anyway.