The Government puffs out its chest to boast the greatest level of investment in railways since the Victorians built our now-aged and creaking network. And the promise of high speed rail will deliver real benefits to the long-suffering passengers on the West Coast Main Line – particularly regular rail users from Northampton. But, combined with a decision to shift the balance of funding of the railway increasingly from the taxpayer to passengers, it shunts a colossal bill onto the backs of those who are left with little option but to pay – and who are struggling to keep their own finances on track.
Last year, commuters from Northampton were obliged to face increases which took the price of a season ticket to London £4,756. That was bad enough, but the same ticket is now £4,980. And with a ticket to use the underground this is now an eye-watering £5,860. And that takes no account of the cost of car parking at Northampton. As a proportion of disposable income, this amount gets more and more disproportionate and frustratingly unreasonable. For those travellers, they feel hit by the double-whammy of paying for the inefficiencies of the current system as well as the improvements required for promised future improvements – which may take decades to be delivered – whilst, in the meantime, their own incomes are stagnating. That is just not fair.
I do not deny the need to invest heavily in the future of our rail network; and the need for improvement is overwhelming. Neither is it unreasonable that the taxpayer should play a progressively smaller part in keeping a privatised industry afloat; but yesterday’s justification from ministers that rail users should be grateful because the Government had originally planned to allow an even greater increase does not show any appreciation of the pressures people are facing in every community: whatever happened to ‘we’re all in it together’?
Irrespective of the merits of the current position on fares regulation, individual decisions should not be seen in isolation. Increases in pay have lagged below inflation throughout the economic malaise, whilst many of the essentials for every household have galloped ahead: the pressures in many struggling households are acute. The greatest challenge in the macro-economy is a crisis of demand and confidence. These increases can only make that situation even worse. Restoring confidence to individual wallets must be a priority.
And I want to know why the Government is not doing more to force the industry to take responsibility. The costs of our railway are exorbitant – a point demonstrated robustly by Sir Roy McNulty in his review published well over a year ago. Why has the Government not done more to confront this industry whose blasé approach to its costs is unsustainable – quite complacent in passing these off to passengers with little or no choice about paying these extortionate rates. And what’s more, why are rail companies protected by a Government that seems only to divide the cake between taxpayers and passengers. What about the industry itself: what is it doing to make itself more efficient as any other business would be forced to do?
I heard a senior rail executive on television last night proclaim that his operations do not make a profit, and that any surplus is divided between investment and the Department for Transport. In what sense can that be called a business, where the company feels itself indemnified against the competitive pressures which otherwise drive efficiency and high levels of service? The Government is providing for protection for taxpayers and encouraging (even funding) investment; but why are ministers so protective of the rail industry? After ten years of inflation-busting increases, it remains passengers who are left to pay the price for this industry’s shambolic failure to get a grip.