Tackling rising rail fares

Published on Monday, 05 December 2011 16:15
Written by John Woodcock MP

In his Autumn Statement George Osborne performed a partial last-minute u-turn on rail fares. Perhaps the only surprising thing is just how long it took ministers to realise how hard rail passengers were going to be hit in the wallet on 3 January

It is astonishing that, at a time when inflation is running at over twice the target level, transport ministers thought this a good time to propose fare increases of 3% above RPI. Commuters returning to work after an already squeezed Christmas would have seen their tickets cost on average 8% more.

The decision by the chancellor to stump up some cash and keep increases to RPI+1% will breathing space for some passengers. But no-one should be celebrating too soon. With wages stagnant and the cost of living rising, an average fare increase of 6.2% is still going to be hard to stomach for most.

And whilst Philip Hammond may have moved on to pastures new, his greatest sleight of hand lives on under Justine Greening: giving train operators the ability to ‘flex’ their fare increases. Rather than a straight-forward 6.2% increase across the board, from this January ministers will allow operators to average the increase out across their whole basket of fares. Whilst this may lead to some passengers seeing sub-6% increases, for others fares could rise by as much as 11.2%. Hardest hit are likely to be commuters on the busiest routes, with operators seeking to price out over-crowding, in lieu of investing in extra capacity. Labour suspended fare flexing – Conservative transport ministers lost no time in bringing it back. When the revised fares are published on 20 December, expect a few unpleasant pre-Christmas surprises.

The eagle-eyed commuter will also have noticed that George Osborne, whilst trumpeting his fare cap for 2012, had nothing to say about future years. It remains the policy of the Tory-led government that the share of the cost of the railways borne by the farepayer should continue to increase, with three years in a row of RPI+3% fare increases. Under pressure, Osborne has relented on the first of these. But the small print of the Autumn Statement shows the chancellor has every intention of ploughing ahead with inflation-busting increases in 2013 and 2014. Perhaps the same panic will take hold amongst commuter belt Tory backbenchers in the years to come, but clumsy u-turns a month before fares go up is no way to run a railway.

Despite planning eye-watering fare increases, ministers want to make the rail system harder to use and to feel less safe for many passengers. Under proposals being considered by the government, up to a quarter of ticket station offices would close. Passengers value the human face on the railway, not just to guide them through the complex ticketing system, but also to help provide a secure environment. The loss of staff on stations will be deeply worrying for many passengers, particularly women and the elderly.

Labour believes that the time has come to tackle the fragmented nature of our railway, which drives out common sense and drives up costs. The sheer amount of money spent on lawyers and consultants, totalling over a quarter of a million pounds when adding staffing costs from the Department for Transport, just to extend the West Coast franchise by nine months shows the need for a serious rethink.
Ministers are dithering over rail reform – their response to the McNulty review, due before the end of 2011, has been delayed. Meanwhile, costs continue to rise and farepayers continue to be squeezed. The time for dither and delay is past – our railways need reform.

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