Everything you know about British train fares is wrong

The good old days. Image: Getty.

Editor’s note: This article dates from 2015. We repromote it every year because that’s how we roll.

Railways are complicated. Their mechanical complexity required the invention of the modern engineering profession to stop them from killing people (mostly). Just as importantly, their business complexity required the invention of the modern accounting profession to stop them from going bust (mostly).

A century and a half on, and many mergers, nationalisations, privatisations and re-nationalisations later, railway finance remains hard to follow. So when fares go up, you generally get to read misleading, knocked-together copy about how fares today are unreasonable and outrageous, how everything is better in other countries, and how everything used to be much nicer in the old days.

The blame for the sky having fallen varies with the publication’s bias. The Guardian blames privatisation and profiteers; the Telegraph blames regulation and bureaucrats. Both are almost entirely wrong.

Charging by use, not by set price

The very worst reporting on the cost of rail involves a cherry-picked comparison of particular journeys, where a foreign ticket is compared to the most expensive available walk-up UK ticket for a long-distance journey. This allows the Telegraph to pretend a ticket from London to Bristol costs £96.50, compared to £29 for the similar distance from Marseille to Nice.

In fact, a morning peak ticket from London to Bristol booked a day in advance costs £42.50, and an off-peak ticket booked a couple of weeks in advance costs £18. Newspapers run the same trick when they compare walk-up rail fares to advance-booked plane fares, which should amuse anyone who’s ever tried to buy a walk-up plane fare.

Look more closely, and you’ll find that UK long-distance and regional train fares are on a par with other high-income countries; the only exceptions are expensive peak-time walk-up tickets. In other words, the UK is better at yield management, selling cheap tickets on empty trains and expensive ones on full trains.

Who pays the piper?

The data required for a proper comparison is available, but is also confusing. To keep things simple, we’ll use data for England here (funding regimes in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland are different, reporting isn’t always consistent, and England makes up over 90 per cent of total spending).

In 2013-14, trains in England were subsidised to the tune of £2.3bn. That number is the subsidy that the government pays directly to publicly-owned track operator Network Rail (£2.9bn), minus the premium that train operators pay the government for the right to operate (£616m).

Passengers in England paid £7.1bn in fares in 2012-13. The 2013-14 data is not yet available, but if we assume there was no increase in fares paid, that would mean that total rail funding was at least £9.4bn.

So 24 per cent of the cost of running the rail network in England in 2014 was paid by taxpayers, and the remaining 76 per cent was paid for by train fares. This compares to 2010-11, when 36 per cent of the cost was paid by taxpayers and 64 per cent out of train fares.

In other words, the amount by which the state is subsidising the rail network is falling. The subsidy is also far less than is paid elsewhere. In New York City, taxpayers pay 44 per cent of the rail system’s operating cost. In Montreal, Canada, it’s 43 per cent, while in Sydney, Australia it’s 80 per cent.

In 2012, German rail consultants Civity carried out a study for the UK’s Office of Rail Regulation. That confirmed that the level of subsidy for Great Britain (including Wales and Scotland but not Northern Ireland) was low compared to other western European countries, particularly for commuters:

Percentage of train operating company revenues from taxpayer grants

Commuters pay a lot, but they still come

So commuter train fares in England are more expensive than those elsewhere. The pro-austerity coalition government has made deliberate and conscious policy decisions that reduce the amount that taxpayers pay towards the railways, and increase the amount that passengers pay.

The drive to cut subsidy has been concentrated on high-demand commuter services. Regional passengers get a good deal by international standards; so do long-distance passengers, so long as they’ve bought their ticket in advance.

Whether that’s a good way to structure things is very much open to personal taste. There is plenty of research to suggest that greater rail usage has benefits for society at large. On the other hand, rail usage in the UK has grown by 70 per cent since 1995 and by 9 per cent from 2010 to 2012 despite rising prices; most of this growth has been among commuters. In other words, as much as people grumble about lower rail subsidy and higher fares in the UK, they aren’t actually putting many people off.


But what about the privateers?

A final common complaint about the railways is that the train operating companies remove significant amounts of money from the system in dividends. You’ll be shocked to hear that this isn’t true either.

Train operators in England made a total profit of £250m in 2012-13. That’s about a 3 per cent margin on the industry’s revenue. By way of comparison, supermarkets make a revenue margin or about 6 per cent; Apple makes 40 per cent.

The upshot of all this is that, if we were to keep the subsidy at the same rate, eliminate operators’ profits tomorrow, and pass all the money saved straight onto commuters, it would lead to a cut in rail fares of 4 per cent. Once.

That’s even if you accept the case that train operators are useless parasites with the tendering process providing no benefits over recreating British Rail in-house, and if you assume that the process of restructuring would be cost-free.  That’s a pretty bold set of assumptions to make for the sake of a one-off 4 per cent cut in your ticket.

Rail subsidies are complicated, analysing things is difficult, and hacks are lazy: it’s no surprise that most commentary on the relative value of UK rail fares should be worthless. But, if you do the analysis properly, it turns out that when fares are higher, there’s a good reason for it: people don’t like paying tax.

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Marseille and Paris are crawling with rats. But it’s your problem too

A Parisian rat. Image: Getty.

You can very easily have a fine time in Marseille, but it is likely to be interrupted by rats.

The bloated and brazen beasts are so utterly convinced they own the place that they barely register any human presence to distract from their hedonistic excesses – throwing wild street parties, burrowing holes in overflowing bins, and darting in and out of exclusive harbourfront restaurants. We only really intrude when the occasional, blissfully oblivious rat is splattered across the cobblestones by a scooter.

For many residents, the whiskery foes have gone some way beyond a nuisance to represent a genuine menace. Rats have infested schools and taken over canteens. Pest control services claim they have broken into cars and gnawed through cables, which may have contributed to accidents. It is also alleged that they have caused Internet outages by attacking fibre-optic cables – continuing the venerable horror movie tradition of cutting the power seen in Aliens and Jurassic Park. Rats are also infamous and prolific traffickers of disease and have raised the threat of Leptospirosis.

Rat populations are fiendishly difficult to quantify, given their nocturnal lifestyle and that many live off-grid in the sewers; but by some estimates they now outnumber Marseille’s human inhabitants. Distress calls from the public to the city’s sanitation department and pest control services have increased, and the unofficial fifth emergency service has expanded its operations in response, laying poison traps and sweeping the gutters.

Several factors have contributed to the rat supremacy. Marseille’s Mediterranean climate has always been hospitable to rats, and a series of unusually warm summers – often passing 30°C – have made it more so. (Rats tend to stop breeding when it’s cold.)

City officials also bemoan the wanton waste disposal habits of their citizens, which have allowed large and easily accessible piles of appetising trash to accumulate. Marseille’s councillor for hygiene Monique Daubet recently complained the city has become a “five-star restaurant for rats”.

Others have suggested a series of strikes by garbage collectors gave the rat population a turbo charge it barely needed. A single pair of brown rats can spawn more than a thousand descendants within a year.

That formidable birth rate is one indicator of what the city is up against: the urban rat is almost a perfect predator. Millennia of human ingenuity has failed to remove them from our midst or negate the threats they pose. Rats are supreme survivors – scientists marvel at their survival on nuclear test sites – and they thrive in the most inhospitable environments. They can eat practically anything, but are neophobic, meaning they shy away from all but the most devious poison traps. The rodents are intelligent, resilient, and their ability to colonise new habitats rivals our own.

Faced with this adversary, the local authority has assigned more resources to the fight, through both the city’s sanitation department and the private extermination service A3DS. Both are reluctant to discuss their tactics and whether they are having an impact. But officials are also taking a tough line on public responsibility, insisting that residents dispose of trash after 7pm in sealed bags or face fines. The city has also proposed measures such as mobile dumps and new model bins that rats should find harder to access.

The Marseillais are also keeping a close eye on events in the capital: Paris’ rat problem may be even more severe, driven by flooding from the River Seine that has forced the rodents to seek higher ground. In recent years, rats have overrun the Louvre and forced the closure of public parks, as well as starring in viral video nasties that do little for the city’s image as the capital of romance.


Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has sounded the alarm and invested millions of euros in a campaign against rats, which has seen thousands of raids in hundreds of parks and buildings, as well as the introduction of more secure bins, and fines levied against people accused of feeding the enemy. Her administration has also despatched an envoy to New York to study the city’s approach to its own notorious rodent community.

An international approach makes sense given that rats are on the march all around the world. Reported sightings have shot up in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington. One study estimated that rats inflict $19 billion of economic damage each year in the US alone. London has also seen an increase in reported sightings. Leading rodentologist Bobby Corrigan says the same patterns are playing out in the major cities of the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

And for much the same reasons. Contributing factors include “too few resources allocated an organised program for rat control,” says Corrigan. “Also, more people in our cities means more refuse, more overloading of the city’s sanitation budgets, less thorough removal of the kind of food shrapnel that escapes typical garbage collection. Each rat only needs about 30 grams of food per 24 hours to thrive and reproduce.” A warming climate also plays a part.

Poison traps and culls can only go so far, says the rodentologist, arguing that a holistic approach is required to head off the growing threat. “The best measure is a city organised in addressing the rats across all agencies,” says Corrigan. That means mobilising departments of sanitation, parks, housing, health, and sewers, as well as mayoral administrations themselves.

Society-wide civic participation is also essential. “Controlling rats takes everyone: every homeowner, shop owner, restaurant, grocery store, airport, and so on. Not to do so invites the risk of a “new and/or highly virulent virus” developing among our old enemies, he adds.

Research into sterilisation programmes offers some hope of a new weapon to repel and reduce the rodent hordes. But not enough for us to evade responsibility while rat populations grow and the threat increases. “If we don’t work together as the wise species we claim to be and present a scientific, multi-faceted organised effort against this very smart and organised smaller mammal, we can have no hope of defeating it,” says Corrigan. Time to man the barricades.