This month’s increase in rail fares isn’t that huge – but commuters are still right to be furious

Oh, Northern. Image: Wikimedia Commons/RcsPrinter123.

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.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

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