Julian Huppert MP writes… Britain deserves an affordable railway

Our rail fares are among the most expensive in Europe, and they keep going up. Between 1997 and 2010 rail fares went up by an astonishing 66% – well above inflation.

If next year’s planned rail fare rises go ahead, some passengers will hand over up to 15% of their wages for the pleasure of travelling to work.

Since the Labour party introduced above inflation fare rises in 2003, these increases have become a yearly occurrence. Indeed, Labour Party policy is still to have above-inflation rail fare increases every year.

We say that rail fares are already too high. We would cap rail fare increases by RPI-1%, lowering rail fares in real terms. Rail travel is an efficient and sustainable form of transport which should be available to all – and we should be trying to encourage rail use over other transport modes. Fares should reflect that.

Coalition with the Conservatives has meant compromise. This past year saw a rail fare increase of RPI+1%, which is between our position of RPI-1%, and the Conservative proposal of RPI+3%.

But next year, unless we can keep the pressure up on the Chancellor, rail fares are set to rise by the higher rate of RPI+3%.

There is still time for Osborne to see sense. The lower rate for 2012 was announced at last year’s Autumn Statement, after intense pressure from Liberal Democrats in Government and outside, and some Tories, such as the Secretary of State for Transport.

In my role as Co-Chair of the Lib Dem Transport Committee, I’ve kept the pressure up on rail fares the whole time, talking to Ministers and advisors: Lord Bradshaw (the other co-chair) and I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport earlier this summer to remind her of Liberal Democrat policy, and highlight our opposition to the RPI+3% rate.

We will continue to campaign hard for the Treasury to abandon the RPI+3% rate, and now have the support of several commuter belt Tory MPs – as well, of course, as Lib Dems across the country.

It’s important to remember that part of the reason the fare rises began in the first place is because our railways are very inefficient, and successive Governments have failed to invest when our network required it. Indeed, the McNulty review of the railways, which this Government commissioned, found that they are up to 40% less efficient than our European counterparts.

I’m very pleased that this Government is both implementing the efficiency savings which the review recommended, and investing heavily in our infrastructure to bring down costs in the long-term. £9.4 billion of investment was announced earlier this year. And the Government has committed to electrifying over 800 miles of railway, when Labour managed just 9 miles in 13 years – a shocking failure.

This investment will bring down running costs, and ultimately fares. We’re not making the same mistake that the last Government made; burdening future generations through political short-termism.

But we cannot ask fare-payers to bear the entire cost of this investment, fares are too high already. As the excellent Campaign for Better Transport has highlighted, we risk turning our railways into a rich man’s toy.

I hope that, come Autumn, we will get some movement. Britain deserves an efficient railway, but it must be one which is affordable for all.

* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15

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14 Comments

  • So, Julian, lots of stuff about fare and then a mention of the 9.4billion investment spend – of course, the government is subsidising the rail companies already, so this extra investment is basically money to improve the services that they will then benefit from in the long run, AKA another subsidy. And all the time shareholders in the rail companies continue to get their dividends. Mmmm, lovely.

  • Daniel Henry 23rd Aug '12 - 12:46pm

    Tim Leunig wrote a blog suggesting that electrification of the lines would only bring marginal benefits to the network and that the real problem was that the majority of stations was underused.

    http://conservativehome.blogs.com/platform/2012/08/tim-leunig-how-to-cut-the-cost-of-railways-and-keep-fares-

    I’m putting the article you because while it’s great that we’re fighting for lower fares, the upshot is that we seem to be using government revenue to patch things up when they’re might be bigger savings to be made if we looked into how the services were being run and what made them so expensive.

  • Paul D Smith 23rd Aug '12 - 12:56pm

    I would like to see more discussions of loading gauge upgrades to Britain’s railways. What “loading guage”? It’s the amount of space allowed between rails, under bridges etc which allows European trains to be much bigger than UK trains. Next time you’re in Paris, look at a TGV sat next to a puny Eurostar. Better still take a journey around Europe and marvel at the extra space and seats on European trains, even double-deckers on some busy commuter routes.

    We hobbled ourselves with small trains in Victorian times (exceptions being Brunel and the Grand Central Mainline) but I believe it is important that all new development throw off these shacklesm, most especially HS2.

  • Daniel Henry’s link to tim’s blog article and discussion got truncated:

    http://conservativehome.blogs.com/platform/2012/08/tim-leunig-how-to-cut-the-cost-of-railways-and-keep-fares-down.html

    Perhaps Julian, you could use your position and connections to do an analysis of the rail industry since privatization showing costs and profits to operators and franchise monies paid to the government.

    Perhaps part of the reason for our fares being so expensive is due to the bid process whereby a significant proportion of the fare is paid to the Treasury – perhaps what is necessary is for the Treasury to forgo some of this revenue in return for significant fare reductions – from the very beginning of the contract…

  • Alex Macfie 23rd Aug '12 - 8:21pm

    Tim Leunig seems to be channelling David Serpell (he of the early 1980s report that suggested paring the rail network to a skeleton, and which even Mrs Thatcher wouldn’t go near).

  • Yes the Beeching approach (ie. trim to a skeleton network) does appeal to those who only wish to avail themselves of a superficial understanding of the data.

    A good example is Corby, where BR withdraw passenger services in 1967, the local councils managed to provide a subsidized service between 1987 and 1990, before replacing it with a cheaper bus service between Corby and Kettering which operated until 2009. In 2009 rail passenger services were re-instated followed by direct trains to London. What seemed to have caught everyone by surprise was both the effect of restoring a regular rail service and the re-introduction of direct trains to London had on passenger numbers.

    So just because a line/service has few passengers, it may be for reasons not directly obvious from the raw data.

  • Leunig’s blog is a right giggle. Especially about closing “little used” stations. Which in 99% of cases are unstaffed and make little difference to the overall cost of running a train anyway.

    Some on here, including the author don’t seem to have the faintest idea of how the railways work either.

  • I don’t think we can continue to promise lower prices and extra tracks (see manifesto). As a party we need a lot more emphasis on how to increase efficiency, as Julian mentions. Maybe renationalisation would help, maybe increasing competition would, but we also need to reconsider whether central government should be insisting that completely uneconomic stations and timetables are maintained.

    And we need to remember that rail costs real money that could be used for other things. We shouldn’t blindly support every railway station and service on principle: it’s fine to argue that there are extra benefits that aren’t always accounted for but we must accept that there *is* a cost-benefit balance, and that at some point the costs are too high. This is especially the case when the same money could produce much better results for the same people if spent on buses.

    Public spending also needs to be compared to the option of letting people decide how to spend their money rather than collecting it in taxes. Is it the case that we are taxing the rich to provide cheap transport for the poor? Or, if rail is already “a rich man’s toy”, are we taxing the poor in order to give subsidies that mostly benefit the rich? Fare levels are only meaningful in comparison to people’s disposable income and if, say, instead of spending £4bn on rail subsidies we gave the poorest 10 million £400 each a year(!), they would clearly find traveling more affordable. Clearly there does come a point where the benefits of subsidising rail travel are outweighed by the costs.

  • I really don’t understand why rail can’t be cheaper. Having communal transport systems should be much more cost effective than individual transport. Then you have to compare rail with other travel. Why is rail so much more expense than coach or even low cost flights. I can get a return air ticket to Hamburg cheaper than I can get a return ticket from Chesterfield to Birmingham International by rail. How does that work ?

    I think we should undertake a full review of the rail system to find a more effective solution. The current franchise system doesn’t provide competition in the operation of the trains (you have to take the operator than runs the trains to where ever you’re going) and doesn’t provide the best solution for consumers. The franchise goes to the highest bidder, and not the provider of the best service or better rolling stock. Trains are overcrowded, service is often poor and a lot of the trains are antiquated (having to put your arm out of the window to operate the outside door handle ??). I don’t think a return to nationalisation is necessarily the answer, but there has to be a better way to organise our railways, and provide a service more like mainland Europe.

  • Richard Dean 25th Aug '12 - 12:53am

    “Our rail fares are among the most expensive in Europe” doesn’t really mean much, except that “among” implies we’re not the most expensive. Who are we being compared to exactly? Are the comparisons taking account of differences in levels of service, such as frequency of trains, comfort, reliability, speed, and numbers of stations?

  • Morgan Inwood 26th Aug '12 - 4:41am

    There should be systematic reform of the Railways, the system designed by the Tories under the Railways Act 1993 which was kept by Labour when they were in Government despite promising all sorts in the mid 1990s is a complete mess.

    Franchises should be reformed, The ICWC Franchise is the recent case to show what is wrong.
    Network Rail should be reformed to make it accountable and transparent
    Re-open lines and HS2
    I agree that Fares should be lowered and the RPI+3% needs to change to make fares lower
    I have an idea regarding the Channel Tunnel and I am not sure who to contact regarding this idea.

    Any reforms must take into account EU Legislation

  • Richard Swales 27th Aug '12 - 6:54am

    Slovakia has affordable railways (even by local pay standards) and it takes more than 5 hours to go the 300 miles between the two largest cities, competing with the bus service. The UK rail network seems mainly to be competing not with buses but with air travel both in terms of absurd high speeds and thereby absurd high prices. Maybe there is a good environmental case for that, but it isn’t likely to lead to low prices for passengers, most of who would be better advised to take a coach.

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