By Joe Rukin
Yesterday’s announcement of rail fare increases ‘to pay for infrastructure upgrades’ is something rail passengers will have to get used to. The announcement could see increases of up to 13% on some routes each year for the next three years, and after that there’s HS2 to pay for. Or is that now? To top it all off, rail fares maybe spiralling in the same way as university tuition fees, as there are EU proposals to remove rail subsidies altogether.
For now, The Government have chosen a rise in fares of 3% above inflation which is currently at 5%. This is an average of 8%, however with the flexibility allowing train operators to charge 5% on the busiest (or worst) trains, commuters could see some fares rise by up to 13%.
In her statement, Transport Minister Theresa Villiers seemed to have missed the fact she was putting fares up about four times the rate wages are increasing; “The scale of the deficit means that the government has had to take some very difficult decisions on future rail fares, but the long-term solution is to get the cost of running the railways down. That way we can get a better deal for passengers and taxpayers. We are determined to do this and if we succeed, we hope to see the end of above-inflation rises in regulated fares.”
Anyone doubting a similar hike to pay for HS2 simply has to read the words of Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond;
“We are now embarked on one of the biggest programmes of rail investment for 100 years, delivering more than 2,700 new rail carriages, a £900m programme to electrify more lines and the vital Crossrail and Thameslink projects in London. Due to the scale of the deficit, these investments would simply have not been possible without the difficult decision we have made to increase rail fares. I know this decision has not been popular, but I hope passengers will appreciate the improvements it allows us to make.”
Shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle said; “These fare rises squeezing commuters are the direct consequence of the Tory-led government’s decision to cut too far and too fast, and travellers are having to pay more to plug the gap in the transport budget.”
There is a white elephant in the room however. It isn’t a cut which is at the heart of this. Far worse, it is the one project Hammond left off the list, the one that is a continuation of reckless and irresponsible spending. All of the projects ‘officially’ in the pipeline cost far less than HS2 will, but what seems to have gone unnoticed is that these commuters are paying for HS2 already. The estimate for HS2 spending 2010-2015 is currently running at £819m, from a starting point of £750m. That’s this Parliament, before we even start building it. This total is rapidly catching up with the cost for that £900m electrification programme which isn’t good enough. Yes, the Great Western needs electrifying, every single one of the top-ten most overcrowded trains in a survey two weeks ago was to or from Paddington. But why stop at Cardiff, and what about the Midland Mainline amongst others? What about the 19th Century signalling around Leeds which holds back the speed and length of crush-hour commuter trains, and of course single track pinch points which need stations like Kenilworth? These are the sort of projects that are being pushed to one side now, as we speak, not when we’re building HS2, but already, because it’s pushing a billion just in this Parliament. When we build it, well… £33bn over 15 years works out just over £2bn per year, doesn’t it? That’s of course before you add in all the things the £33bn guesstimate doesn’t cover. That money is going to have to come from somewhere.
Obviously it’s going to come from passengers, as that is what Mr Hammond has made clear, but if the passengers are to pay for rail infrastructure upgrades, then maybe we should let them prioritise? The problem there is that they might think that spending less and improving far more of the existing network; i.e. the trains they actually use -or more rightly ‘endure’- would be a priority.
This way of thinking however seems to be completely in line with what is currently coming out of the EU, as there are current proposals from the European Commission to abolish all government rail subsidies, creating of a ‘user pays’ system where passengers would be forced to incur the full cost of rail travel.
Mike Natrass MEP, who sits on the EU’s Transport & Tourism Committee said;
“More and more people would stop using our railways and the Government still wants to waste billions of pounds on High Speed Rail 2 (HS2). The EU also wants to introduce more tolls and pay-as-you-go travel on British roads. So there would be no escape. It would be a catch 22 situation – pay high rail fares or pay excessive toll charges.”
There are of course two sides to what can happen when travel subsidies are removed, fares can go up or as evident around the country with the buses, services just disappear altogether. There is a simple way to avoid cuts. You spend less.