It feels like a peculiarly British joke that the annual rise in rail fares happens at the exact point in the year when commuters are least enthusiastic about getting on a train and going to work. The first week back after Christmas is generally ghastly, even if you’re lucky enough to like your job: throw in an unavoidable increase in the cost of getting there, and it comes with an effective pay cut as well. Why anyone would bother doing dry January too is a mystery to me. Perhaps they can’t afford to drink.
All that said, my hipster, controversialist, admittedly-not-a-person-who-needs-to-buy-a-season-ticket-to-do-my-job take on this week’s rail fare increase is – it’s not that bad. The campaign group Railfuture has described it as “yet another kick in the wallet”. But the actual scale of the increase – which averages 3.1 per cent in England and Wales, and 3 per cent in Scotland – is not that huge. It’s less than a point above the recent inflation: if that was the rate house prices increased by, millennials would be delighted. This should feel like a win.
And yet it quite clearly doesn’t. Why not?
One possibility is that “rail fares rise, commuters angry” is as well-worn a seasonal story as “council bans Christmas” or “snow causes chaos”: news desks are so much in the habit of sending reporters after this one they haven’t stopped to consider if it’s a valid complaint.
Another explanation relates to matters of geography and class. Regular train travel is actually a minority sport in Britain – research published by YouGov earlier this week shows that four in 10 Brits haven’t even set even foot on a train in the last year. The percentage of people who actually commute by rail is in single figures.
And yet, we obsess about the rail network, while ignoring the more widely used buses. Why? Because most of those commuting by train are heading for London – which just so happens to be where all the journalists and politicians are. Bus fares are also appalling – but those they affect simply aren’t as visible to the ruling class.
One side effect of this is that rail passengers tend, by national standards, to be relatively rich. This raises the uncomfortable possibility that reducing rail subsidies, by gradually increasing fares, might actually be the more progressive thing to do.
But, for two reasons, I don’t think it is: actually, I think commuters have a perfect right to be a bit pissed off that fares are going up by 3 per cent yet again.
One problem is the state of the railways themselves. For many months now they’ve been in a mess. New cross-city infrastructure in both London and Manchester was meant to lead to an increase in services and journey opportunities; what it actually led to was months of chaos and cancellations and lengthy statements from Chris Grayling explaining why, contrary to appearances, none of it was his fault. To someone who’s been trying to fight their way onto a two-car bus on rails every morning for the last year, the fact Northern managed to raise their fares before it managed to provide the service for which it was contracted just adds insult to injury.
The other reason anger over rail fare increases is justified relates to the wider economy. A 3 per cent increase in fares may not sound unreasonable – but by the same token, neither would a 3 per cent increase in wages. The latter, however, has not been forthcoming for many years, and that situation doesn’t soon seem likely to change. Under such circumstances, being told it’s going to cost you more just for the privilege of getting to your increasingly underpaid job just feels like taking the piss.
This article first appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman.