The 4.1% increase in rail fares announced by the Government has generated howls of anguish from commuters across the country and I think they have every right to feel hard done by. It sometimes seems that ministers and rail companies go out of their way to make life difficult for those who rely on the railways. Take, for example, my constituents in Northampton. Taking these latest fare rises into account, a Northampton commuter’s annual ticket to London now costs £6,100. If you add on the price of car parking and further travel to worksites in the city then that can end up in the region of £7,000. That’s a staggering 30% of the disposable income of someone on a salary of £35,000 per year. In essence, a Northampton commuter could easily end up spending a third of their earnings just on getting to work. Surely, anyone can see that’s just outrageous
How can such an increase possibly be justified? Well, Patrick McLoughlin – the Transport Secretary – claims it reflects the Government’s aim of removing some of the burden from taxpayers by shifting it onto the passengers. That in itself is understandable, even admirable, but it’s also very misleading. The truth is that there’s no need for taxpayers or rail users to suffer at all. The real savings should be coming from ensuring greater efficiency in the system. That’s not a hollow claim. Indeed, it’s one of the conclusions from the official McNulty Report on the British rail system. McNulty found that UK rail costs were a full 20% more expensive than their European counterparts, while state subsidy was 40% higher. That all led to an enormous £3.5 billion of inefficiencies in the UK system every year, with most of these inefficiencies due to the exceptionally high salaries being paid to train service employees.
Yes, the rail system is in need of serious reform and, yes, we do need to drive up the levels of investment as Mr McLoughlin argues. But we’re coming at the problem from the wrong angle. Don’t punish the customers until you can be sure that the providers have squeezed every last element of inefficiency out of their service. Also, only when you’re confident in the system can you be sure that the money from fare increases etc is being invested properly and not wasted.