Image created by Kylie Barton, using prices from the National Rail Website accurate as of 19/01/2016
As Caroline Lucas' Private Members Bill on bringing the railway back into the public's hands gets its second reading (22nd January) with the backing of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, I thought it timely to share some of the many frustrations of a commuter. Moreover, demonstrate how the government and the train companies are completely mugging us off.
Rail fares in the South East can be up to four times more expensive than comparable journeys across Europe. We all know that if you want to journey to London, or to another popular destination, that you will pay for the privilege of a seat, or more often than not, a small space to stand in a rammed train of other disgruntled travellers. What is more concerning, and more surprising, is that for smaller more local journeys, we get ripped off when it comes to buying a single.
With a trip to London from the South you are looking at northwards of £50, unless you book in advance and manage to find an obscure rate, or take a stopping service. At least with London though, if a single is all you require then you can usually see that you are only charged around half of the price of a return ticket, which is fair fares at its finest. After all you are only undertaking half of the journey of a return, and so why would the price be more than half?
Great question. Logic would dictate that this would be the case across the entirety of the rail network, but logic and what is in the public interest doesn't currently govern our railways - profiteering big business does. This is why The Railway Bill is so important, so that common sense can prevail, and allow people to make greener choices with their transport decisions.
National Rail can offer ridiculous prices to places like Lille at £29 due to the amount they overcharge on small local journeys. This is not good. It is an absolute joke that in the year after the Paris Climate Talks, people can pay less to travel further, whilst people making small journeys to get to work pay through the teeth for journeys of less than 45 minutes (discounting the multiple delays of course).
Having just moved to a new constituency, thus making my own commute longer, I decided this would be the topic that I first contact my new, (surprise surprise) Tory MP about. In the letter I described my grievance that in my commute from Fratton to Eastleigh, I pay only 50p less for a single. Sometimes I have other arrangements after work which may include volunteering with young people, or I may be getting picked up or dropped off if my partner is around that way. But I still have to pay pretty much full price when I am doing half the travelling. It makes me sick every time I queue up at the self-service ticket machine.
One day, whilst waiting in the cold for a delayed service, which was the second that week, I asked a member of staff if he knew why this was the case. He said, South West Trains' hands are tied by the government. Write to them. And so I did. If the government are in some way responsible for the pricing structures, why indeed is the public whom they serve not receiving the benefits and the profits? It just doesn't make sense.
Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas states:
"Privatisation has not delivered the innovation and investment it promised, back-room staff costs have massively increased, the cost of train travel has risen by 23% in real terms, and the drain on the public purse has more than doubled. The only long-term solution is to bring the railways fully back into public hands. The franchisees remain heavily dependent upon public subsidies, yet turn over an estimated 90% of their profits to shareholders. And, because of the fragmented system, £1.2bn a year is wasted on the bureaucracy needed to work out which franchisee is liable to pay compensation for poor service".
The railways have been in the news again this year due to the 1 per cent increase in fares, reportedly being the lowest in years. But why an increase at all when the service is still poor, the prices are completely nonsensical and are disproportionate to the miles travelled?
To her credit, MP for Portsmouth South, Flick Drummond provided a very personalised, in depth response. I have to wonder if this sort of response may sometimes be sent to bamboozle the enquirer into silent submission, but not me. Ms Drummond stated that South West Trains have a 'fairly inflexible fare structure' and invited me to take part in the current public consultation to tell the Department of Transport what aggrieved commuters like me want. (This is still open by the way so do it now).
She discussed how she has pressed South West Trains for greater flexibility, and even suggested innovative methods such as pay as you go cards like the Oyster model. But it is no surprise they did not seem keen because the infrastructure is not there to support such a scheme, on a network as spread out as the South West. Many stations do not have barriers in place for instance which ironically creates a barrier to such technological innovation. Also, they have no real impetus for such a change that would see them pocketing less, because a business's main priority, is, has, and always will be profit. And this is why the railway needs to be a public service. She continued to say that the only way the companies' hands are tied is that they cannot increase without government say so, they are free to reduce whenever they like - but shock horror; they don't.
On the single fare issue in particular, she said:
"The government did consider the anomaly of single fares that are nearly the same as returns in the last Parliament, and I will find out what happened to the trial which was expected to run last year with single fares at a lower level. I take this issue very seriously and the issue of ticketing is something we need to address as well as the infrastructure the trains run on. I have had great support from other MPs in the region in pushing for better rail services so far, and have had a lot of correspondence with constituents about it too. The current situation is not acceptable and I am determined that it will be improved."
We, the commuters, look forward to hearing more about these trials, and plead with parliament to take The Railway Bill seriously, we have had enough.