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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“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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