OPINION - Andy Burnham: The Great British Rail Sale shows us what fares should be like

·4-min read
 (Amanda Searle)
(Amanda Searle)

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the “Great British Rail Sale” is that, finally, something has arrived that has been subject to very long delays: an admission from the Government that rail fares in this country are way too high. Beyond that, though, I’m struggling.

For just one month, some passengers on some routes will get a glimpse of what it’s like to travel on the railways at prices permanently available to people in pretty much every other country in the world. And then, in May, the window on what rail travel should be like will be slammed shut again.

I can’t help but think it makes Grant Shapps this Government’s equivalent of Jim Bowen, the host of the old TV programme Bullseye. “Come and have a look at what you could have won,” Jim used to say to his losing guests. “Come and have a look at what things were like before rail privatisation,” the Transport Secretary seems to be saying to people in their thirties and younger.

Back in the early Nineties, when I was working in Manchester, I got an unexpected job interview in London and had to travel down early the next morning. I often wonder how someone in their twenties or thirties copes now in the same situation.

Today, if you were to walk into a rail station to buy an anytime day return between London and Manchester, it would set you back £369.40. Even if you are using a 16-25 or 25-30 railcard, you are still talking about a massive outlay for just a two-hour journey. It begs the question: how many job interviews and life chances are lost because of the cost of rail travel in this country? Answer: a lot. In that one number — £370 — the full extortionate madness of rail pricing in this country is exposed.

On today’s prices, it is cheaper to book a return flight from Manchester to India, Jamaica, Brazil or the Ivory Cost than it is to take a two-hour return rail journey to our capital city. It is often cheaper to get a flight between Manchester and London if you need to travel at peak times. Compare that with the situation in France. The two-hour rail trip between Paris and Lyon, the equivalent of London-Manchester, is £58 for a single ticket.

For as long as train tickets cost more than plane tickets, the economics of transport in the UK will be in entirely the wrong place when it comes to facing up the climate crisis. But the truth is it unlikely to change any time soon.

This is one of the most frustrating things about the “Great British Rail Sale”. It comes one month after the biggest hike in rail fares for nine years. It also excludes the railway’s most loyal and long-suffering customers — daily commuters — who do not have the luxury of being able to travel off-peak.

And, given that the window for people to book these cut-price tickets neatly spans the arrival of postal votes on doormats and polling day in early May, the phrase “election gimmick” might suffice as the final word on the “Great British Rail Sale”. From late May, we will be back to our ongoing reality of the “Great British Train Robbery”.

But here is where I am going to cut our Transport Secretary a little bit of slack. With this initiative, Grant Shapps is at least implicitly acknowledging that rail fares are much too high. And he is the first Tory Transport Secretary to make a break with rail privatisation with his Great British Railways reform. My guess is he would probably like to go further with these things — were it not for the obstruction on the line that is the Chancellor.

You would hope that the pandemic has taught HM Treasury a painful lesson about transport policy. For decades, they have been pushing rail privatisation and bus deregulation as a way of reducing public subsidies. But, when the transport network ground to a halt in March 2020, this approach left them shovelling billions down the throats of private transport operators for very little public benefit in return. And this year, as the transport system comes back to life, those same operators are now free to charge their over-priced rail and bus fares again. It is a lose-lose for the taxpayer/passenger.

With the country in the clutches of a simultaneous cost-of-living and climate crisis, we won’t get the railway we need until we retake control and massively reduce fares. And that takes us to only one destination: full re-nationalisation.