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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Wild boar are moving back to Genoa, and not everyone is pleased

A wild boar, c1933. Image: Getty.

Crossing the Ponte Gerolamo Serra in the Italian city of Genoa, I spotted a small crowd clustered by the river wall. I approached, intrigued, and peered over the wall to discover the subject of their delight: a sounder of eight wild boars – the adults sheltering from the heat in the undergrowth, while the juveniles foraged among the foliage that grows in the river bed during the dry summer months.

In any other city, such a sight might have been surprising. But in Italy, and particularly in the region of Liguria, where Genoa is located, the population of wild boars has been increasing at such a rapid rate that these incidents are now common. Across the country, it’s estimated that the population has risen from 600,000 to 1m over the past decade.

But while wild boars may look comically out of place trotting about the city, it’s actually a natural result of the way people have migrated – and the wars they have fought – over the course of recent history.

Making a comeback

A species native to Europe, the wild boar (or “cinghiale”, in Italian) largely disappeared from its historical territories during the 18th and 19th centuries. Their decline was widely attributed to the combined effects of habitat change, competition for space and resources and, of course, hunting.

Wild boars were a prized quarry, revered for their ferocity – and the danger involved in pursuing them. According to local folklore from the region of Liguria, the last truly wild boar was hunted and killed in 1814, in the province of Savona.

After an absence of more than a century, wild boar began to return to Liguria, and to the neighbouring region of Piedmont. A further influx occurred during World War I, when it’s believed that military activities in the south-east of France forced parts of the population back into Italy over the Alps.

Although hunting fraternities were quick to augment this fledgling population with wild boars transported from elsewhere, the return of the species was primarily due to natural causes. From the 1950s onwards, traditional agricultural practices were abandoned as more and more people moved from rural towns into the cities. This meant that large areas of formerly cultivated terraces and pastures were rapidly overgrown, fast becoming dense secondary woodlands.

A city gone wild

This spontaneous “rewilding” has become a controversial issue in the region. Many conservationists and environmental organisations consider the region’s return to a “wild state” a success. But others believe that the encroaching wilderness signals a loss of traditional woodland knowledge and a reduction of biodiversity, associated with the pastures and meadows.


The province of Genoa is among the areas most densely populated by wild boar in Italy, with an estimated 25 boar per 10km². Rewilding processes have brought woodlands to the city limits, blurring the boundary between rural and urban areas. The species has expanded beyond the hinterlands, colonising highly urbanised, densely populated city spaces in Genoa, drawn by the abundance of food waste created by humans.

In 2009, the infamous boar Pierino made his home at Righi, on the outskirts of Genoa, where he was routinely fed with focaccia by enthusiasts. Today, a family of wild boar call the Albergo dei Poveri – a historical hostel for the Genoese poor in the city centre – their home.

But while their antics are often recorded and shared with glee on social media, the threats posed by the presence of wild animals has become a preoccupation for the city’s municipal administration.

Boorish behaviour

Wild boar have been involved in a number of traffic accidents, and have proven to be particularly dangerous when with their young, attacking dogs and even people. The city council in Genoa has put forward many proposals to reduce the number of animals in the city, ranging from forced removals, to sterilisation, increased attention to waste disposal and approved hunts. About 90 wild boar were reportedly culled in 2018.

Needless to say, each of these measures has been hotly debated. Animal advocacy groups staunchly oppose the proposals, and sometimes obstruct the authorities’ attempts to take action, often sending patrols to care for the animals, and even give them names. But other residents are displeased with the animals’ presence in the city, and have consulted with the council on how to address the problems that they cause.

And so Genoa continues to grapple with thorny issues surrounding the presence of wild boar in the city, with the city authorities seeking to resolve a polemical issue that embroils the lives of animals and humans alike. So far, a collective, coherent and communally agreeable strategy has proven evasive; one that considers the need for public safety, hygiene and health with the ethical responsibilities towards to wild boar themselves.

Meanwhile, the animals themselves continue to lounge and forage beneath the Ponte Gerolamo Serra and elsewhere, bringing a little of the wilderness into the city.

The Conversation

Robert Hearn, Assistant Professor in Human Geography, University of Nottingham.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.