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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The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.