Happy New Year as Rail Fares rise yet again!

Commuter Hell at Clapham Junction by  Croll on Flickr

Commuter Hell at Clapham Junction by Iain Croll on Flickr

It happens every year. Commuting to work – and especially commuting to London – isn’t fun at the best of times, but when they put the rail fares up, it only adds insult to injury. Each year, for as long as I can remember, rail fares have increased as night follows day, and each time it’s the same old lame excuse: “We’re doing it because we need to invest to improve our services.” 

What services? What improvements? I’ve never seen any. Another lick of paint to the toilets? The same toilets the train companies were thinking of abolishing?

This year, the increase was 4.2%, BUT we should be grateful to the government that it wasn’t higher. According to the BBC, rail fares were set to increase by 6.2% but the government stepped in like a white knight to protect long suffering commuters:

“Initially the rail fare increase was set at RPI plus 3% – a total of 6.2% – but this was reduced to RPI plus 1% by the government in October to a total of about 4.2%.”

Oh goody.

And look at the cheek of the Transport Minister, Norman Baker, who saved the day:

“Mr Baker said: “We are engaged in the biggest rail investment programme since the 19th Century and it is only right that the passenger, as well as the taxpayer, contributes towards that.

“In the longer term we are determined to reduce the cost of running the railways so that we can end the era of above-inflation fare rises,” he added.”

Just a moment. Just read that last bit again:

“In the longer term we are determined to reduce the cost of running the railways so that we can end the era of above-inflation fare rises,” he added.

Wow. How terribly far sighted. So commuters are paying more each year, so that one day – hopefully before they retire – they’ll be able to pay less.

This sounds eerily like something from the Vietnamese War, when a US army major was quoted as saying:

“We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

But don’t blame the train companies – it’s the government’s fault!

That’s right. According to Michael Roberts of the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC):

“We understand commuters don’t like to pay more to travel to work but it is the government, not train companies, that decides how much season tickets should rise on average each year.

“Successive governments have required train companies to increase the average price of season tickets every January since 2004 by more than inflation. Ministers want passengers to pay a larger share of railway running costs to reduce the contribution from taxpayers while sustaining investment in better stations, new trains and faster services.”

In other words:

“It’s not us who are responsible for the rail fares rising. It’s the big bad government – they made us do it, we didn’t want to, if we had our way, you’d all get free tickets with your own special weekend ride on Thomas the Tank as an extra.”

Thomas the Tank Engine by Henry Burrows on Flickr

Thomas the Tank Engine by Henry Burrows on Flickr

Yeah right. Tell me, what happens when government ministers complain about excessive executive pay? Hmm…

What does the law say about rail fare rises?

A useful explanation of Government policy can be found in Standard Note SN0194 on the Parliament website. Here is a short extract from part 1 of the document:

“The Secretary of State has a duty under section 28 of the Railways Act 1993, as amended, to ensure that, where it appears necessary, fares or certain classes of fare are reasonable’

The 1993 Act, the Transport Act 2000, and the Railways Act 2005 give the Secretary of State the power to regulate fares through the franchise agreements with the train operating companies (TOCs) where this is in the interests of passengers. Although the 1993 Act does not define ‘reasonable’, the principal market in which such regulation has been deemed necessary is the commuter market around London and certain other cities, where commuters have few practical alternatives to rail. Fares regulation has therefore been applied through franchise agreements to limit increases in these fares…”

Now let’s go back to what Michael Roberts of the ATOC said:

“Successive governments have required train companies to increase the average price of season tickets every January since 2004 by more than inflation.” [emphasis added]

No, that’s not how it appears to me. According to Standard Note SN01904, the Government sets a cap on how much train companies can increase rail fares – but that’s not the same as saying that the Government actually requires an increase in the first place. It’s the train companies that make this decision.

But is the Government doing enough to limit rail fare rises?

Not in my opinion.

The present cap is set at RPI plus 1%, which doesn’t look as bad as RPI + 3%, which is what the cap was going to be until there was a change of heart.

But I remember when this Coalition Government came to power, they announced they were going to measure price inflation by switching from the traditional RPI to the CPI measure, which excludes housing costs. This immediately alienated the nation’s old people, as their yearly pension increases would be less.

So why doesn’t the Government use the same measure in setting the cap on rail fare increases? Well? Why not?

Because they needs the money! From Standard Note SN0194:.

…in the November 2011 Autumn Statement, the chancellor, George Osborne, announced that he had found £290 million to allow the regulated fare rise for 2012 to be capped at RPI+1 instead of the previously announced RPI+3. It is as yet unclear what will happen in subsequent years. In October 2012 the Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced that the Government would not proceed with a cap of RPI+3 for 2013 and 2014, as announced in October 2010, but would proceed on the basis of RPI+1 for both of those years.”

The implication is that RPI + 1% was only possible because of this £290m saving. Switching to CPI would mean having to find larger savings – which might not be viable.

What do commuters really want from their journey to work?

Whatever the reasons for the rail fare rise, whoever’s responsible, I don’t think commuters really care one way or another. What people really want is to be able to commute to work in reasonable comfort, and to arrive on time, ready and raring to go.

They don’t want to have to fork out more money each year for improvements that never materialise.

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