THE BLOG

As Rail Fares Rise Again, Commuters Are Entitled to Ask Just Where Their Extra Money Is Going

04/12/2015 16:19 GMT | Updated 04/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Commuters returning to work on 4 January will find that the cost of travel has risen again - and they are entitled to ask just where the extra money is going.

It was confirmed this morning that the price of commuter tickets will rise by 1%, although the cost of 'unregulated' tickets - which are generally more expensive and the prices of which are set by train companies - will rise by more than this.

A 1% rise might seem relatively small, but set against fare rises in previous years it represents an overall increase of 25% since 2010. On the most expensive routes this means that some passengers are paying over a thousand pounds more, each year, just to get to work. Following Ministers' decision to restore a loophole that allowed train operating companies to vary prices above the nominal cap, some season tickets cost over 30% more than they did five years ago.

Nor are fare rises restricted to once a year. Last September the government imposed a new evening peak restriction in metropolitan areas in the North, which effectively hiked the cost of travel by up to 162%. Following pressure from Labour, Ministers were forced to admit that they had similar plans on the Brighton Main Line, and they have not ruled out additional 'stealth fare rises' elsewhere.

In previous years, the government has insisted that fare rise were necessary to fund investment. But vital schemes such as the electrification of key lines were first 'paused,' then 'unpaused' in a panicked announcement before the Conservative Party Conference, and those projects are now delayed by years while their costs continue to rise. Passengers are paying more to travel on increasingly overcrowded and unreliable trains while the improvements they were promised slip further away.

Similarly, promised reforms to ticketing are not being delivered. We were told in the last Parliament that the government would deliver smart ticketing outside London and more flexible, part-time season tickets - promises that were reiterated in the Conservative manifesto. Yet the cost of those projects has increased by 78% from £45million to £80million, and delivery has been delayed by three years from 2015 to 2018 (Ministers were presumably too busy privatising the successful publicly-owned East Coast service to follow up on their original intentions).

Research commissioned by the Department for Transport concluded that part-time season tickets could save some passengers up to 50% - so why aren't they being implemented? The Department has blamed train operating companies for not signing up to the programme, which raises fundamental questions over whether current industry structures and the franchising system are delivering for passengers.

The Conservative Party should honour its previous position. In a 2009 review of rail policy, it stated that:

Passengers are being priced off the railway to disguise ministers' failure to find a way to provide extra capacity. ... Fare rises come with tacit Government approval and are often the direct result of the franchise process.

Ministers should now accept their responsibility for the continued squeeze on passengers' incomes, and get on with delivering the promises they made while they were trying to secure votes before May.

However, there are limitations to what can be achieved under the current system. It is taking far too long, and costing far too much, to achieve basic improvements - and taxpayers and passengers are left counting the cost.

It's increasingly clear that only meaningful reform based on a programme of a progressive extension of public ownership and common standards across the network will achieve the reforms that passengers need.