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TAKING THE RISE OUT OF PASSENGERS

17-11-2009

Rail passengers can put away those champagne bottles – despite headlines proclaiming that rail fares would rise by just over 1%, Kevin Chapman reveals that tickets for many journeys will rise by considerably more.

At first glance, reports that rail fares are going up 1.1% in January sound like good news for hard pressed passengers juggling wage freezes on one hand and the rising cost of living on the other. Scratch below the surface though, and the reality is that millions of rail users could be facing above inflation fare increases.

The 1.1% figure quoted by the rail operators group the Association of Train Operating Companies is actually an average figure, taking into account the proposed fare increases across hundreds of journeys.

Some tickets are regulated following a policy set when British Rail was privatized in the mid 1990’s, including seasons and the “Saver” off peak turn up and go ticket which was heavily marketed by BR. The rise for regulated fares has been limited to 0.4%, as the Retail Price Index for July used to calculate them was -1.4% (deflation in real terms).

In reality though most tickets purchased, including the advance purchase fares offered over the internet are unregulated. The train companies are facing revenue shortfalls owing to the recession and the Government is cutting the subsidy paid to them. The result is that passengers will end up paying more and more for to travel by rail and might see rises for their tickets well above the rate of inflation.

A report in this weeks Sunday Mirror gives a good example of current pricing practice. Virgin Trains have claimed in adverts that they have cheap advance tickets for services running over Christmas.

The paper found that the cheap tickets which went on sale last month were only available on a handful of services, and that most passengers would be paying eight times more than the fares quoted in Virgins adverts. The operators would argue that if you can book ahead you can get a good deal, but not everyone can plan their journeys in advance, for example if an urgent business meeting or family emergency comes up. If you have to buy a walk on ticket you may sometimes end up paying more than four times the advance fare.

Rail fares are already amongst the highest in Europe. Yet if fares were actually cut by 20% (to around the European average) one independent survey suggests rail patronage could increase by 17% by 2015. It sounds a no-brainer. It would mean fewer cars on the road and more revenue for the train companies. So why has no-one done this?

The answer is because rail policy is a mess – the train companies in most cases only have seven year franchises and therefore are not interested in the long-term. Rather than growing their businesses it appears most of them are happy to follow the BR model of pricing people off the railways when the going gets tough.

Meanwhile some of the operators appear quite happy for passengers to have “free travel” – I have heard stories that because the ticket office at Stourbridge Town is often closed passengers often travel on the Stourbridge Junction – Stourbridge Town Parry People Mover for free, because the staff who operate the service cannot issue tickets.

Why not provide the resources needed to ensure the fares are paid, and people don’t get a free ride while the rest of us are paying through the nose?

The Department for Transport (who are responsible for franchising) are happy for the current system of short term franchising to continue, even though most rail improvements take a long time to develop.

It’s ironic that the politicians are considering new High Speed Lines while the masses are being priced off the railway. We need a rail system that gives affordable transport for the many, not an expensive service that can only be afforded by a few.

Kevin Chapman is Chair of the West Midlands Campaign for Better Transport

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