Hot on the heels of the Olympic we have been given yet another firmly entrenched tradition which will unite the nation. This time it's not a good one, in fact it a horrible and universally unpopular one. I am of course referring to the great annual railway robbery.
British fares are already the highest in Europe, but the new changes mean that they're going to be increasing by up to 10%. Amidst the confusing structures of a bamboozling and inept system someone is making a killing while passengers are being punished. The increases may be indiscriminate, but it will be people on low to medium incomes who are hit hardest. The new costs mean that commuters between Kings Lynn and London will have to pay an astoundingly expensive £5325 for their annual pass, which is around 20% of the average UK salary. The problem of rising living costs is not isolated to rail, but, as the Campaign for Better Transport has pointed out, these latest increases mean that fares are going up three times faster than salaries. With that in mind it's obvious why only 42% of rail users feel that they're getting value for money.
Perhaps the increase wouldn't matter so much if our trains were outstandingly efficient, but they're not. As a regular commuter between London and Scotland I know all too well how unreliable they are. When we look outside the realms of anecdote and into the reality of cold hard numbers it's obvious that I'm not the only one. Passenger Focus has reported a 30% rise in the numbers of complaints they've received over the past year. They've also found that 13.7million passenger journeys on long-distance trains were affected by late or cancelled trains last year, with Network Rail being threatened with a well-deserved fine if they miss their targets again.
The reality is that there are fewer decisions in history that have been as soundly discredited as the privatisation of British rail. The very idea is flawed and treats transport as a commodity rathe than a neccesery service. Even if the ethos of competition was a sound way to run rail then it still wouldn;t work because the routes have all been monopolised. One of the biggest problems of the debate is that until now the political parties have all signed up to a pretty bog standard consensus on the issue. The current settlement means that fares will continue to increase above inflation, and the money that could be put into the service is now being spent on a high speed rail infrastructure. High speed rail is all well and good, but it won't be finished until at least 2026, and its £33billion price tag means that it's unlikely to help people who are being priced off the rails.
Earlier this summer the Shadow Transport Minister, Angela Eagle, said that the Labour Party is considering adopting a policy of taking the national rail network back under public ownership. There would be an overwhelming public support for the move, so if they do it they can expect to receive a political dividend for it. Some may say that this would be far too expensive, but at the moment we subsidise rail companies to the tune of £4bn a year. In contrast, a study conducted by the Transport for Quality of Life think-tank concluded that nationalisation could save us £1.2 billion a year through reducing borrowing costs, removing shareholders' dividends and reducing fragmentation and duplication.
Will they have the bottle to do it? I would certainly hope so, because the alternative is that we continue to get ripped off, and even more of us will come to the sad conclusion that air travel in Britain is cheaper, quicker and less likely to be delayed. In 2002 Peter Hain, then a government minister, said that we had "the worst trains in Europe." A decade on you would hope that things had changed, but every time I get stuck in yet another long and expensive delay I worry that it's ten years later and his words are truer than ever.
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