Seven thoughts on this week’s rail fare rises

Choo, choo. Image: Getty.

This article first appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman.

It’s January, it’s cold, we’re all back at work and most of us are broke. What better time, then, for Britain’s beloved train operating companies to give commuters their annual rinsing?

As of this week train fares have risen by an average of 3.4 per cent, which is significantly more than the average pay packet has risen of late. If you commute by train, then today’s news will, in all likelihood, make you poorer.

And this, or something like this, happens every year: since 2010, indeed, rail fares have risen roughly twice as fast as wages. Both the hike in fares, and howls of outrage, are now as much a part of the New Year’s ritual as hangovers and wasting money on a gym membership you’re never going to use.

But exactly how big a piss-take are the TOCs pulling here? Is it really as bad as all that?

Some thoughts.

1. Rail fares are not quite as horrific as they seem

There’s a piece I roll out at roughly this point every year, with the headline, “Everything you know about British train fares is wrong”. In it, John Band argues that – contrary to what you might have read – fares here are not radically out of step with those elsewhere in Europe, where trains are nationalised. What’s more, the train operating companies make a profit margin of around 3-4 per cent, which is not in fact very high.

So: the picture is not quite as simple as evil private rail companies ripping off decent, honest travellers.

2. But they are more complex

There are two reasons why fares, nonetheless, seem comically high. One is that, for the last decade, government policy has been to reduce public subsidy and pass more of the costs of the railways on to those who actually use them – hence the gradual, year-on-year fare increases.

The other reason is that certain fares are much higher than elsewhere. To get the best rate you generally have to book in advance: the most ridiculous fares are those you pay when you turn up without warning. Getting from London to Manchester this afternoon, for example, would set you back at least £145, which, LOL.

Even if you do book in advance, commuter fares are higher than in many comparable countries. In both cases, the explanation for all this is the same: as with plane tickets or Uber, the British railway system uses fares to manage demand. In John Band’s words, “the UK is better at yield management, selling cheap tickets on empty trains and expensive ones on full trains”.

3. All the same, commuters are getting stuffed

This may be of limited comfort though because, for many people, commuting by train is basically compulsory. Planning policies like the green belt mean that, for decades now, much of London’s housing need has been met by building in its commuter hinterland.

If you live in, say, Stevenage, then you very probably work in London, and have to be at your desk by 9am. You probably can’t afford to move to central London, and you probably don’t get much choice as to whether or not you travel at peak times. You’re stuck with those fares. Tough.

4. …but not all commuters

Here’s a great map, courtesy of Twitter’s @election_data. It shows the share of residents commuting by train in each parliamentary constituency. See if you can spot any patterns:

In other words, in much of the country, it doesn’t matter whether train fares rise or fall: these increases are a largely south eastern problem, and the reason we’re talking about it is because Britain’s politicians and journalists are concentrated overwhelmingly in and around London.

In most of the country, a government could do far more to improve people’s experience of public transport by sorting out the bus network: letting cities set routes and fares again, as they once did. In London, the authorities still do: it’s not a coincidence that it has the best bus network in Britain.

5. There are other ways to run a railway – but they cost

Many of those who actually live in London itself will be protected from the increase: the capital’s mayor Sadiq Khan made it a cornerstone electoral pledge to freeze fares on Transport for London services until 2020.

This, though, will have a knock-on effect on investment in London transport, and we might not notice that for a while, but sooner or later we probably would. Tighter controls on national rail fares would have much the same effect. Our options are basically to raises fares, cut investment – or increase government subsidies.

The last of these is a perfectly reasonable option, taken in many other railway systems around the world. Personally, I’m entirely in favour, on the grounds that trains are cool, and far better for the environment and society than cars.

But since the beneficiaries would largely be commuters in the south of England, it’s not obvious that this is, in the short term, the progressive policy choice. It’s also not, it’s worth noting, what Labour is suggesting. It’s promised “an efficient, affordable, nationalised rail service”, funded by the savings that come from scrapping the need to pay dividends to TOC shareholders. But given that profit margins are around 4 per cent of revenues, that suggests that nationalisation by itself would save commuters from perhaps a year of fare increases – maybe two at the outside.

So: we could get fares down. But it’d cost public money, would mainly benefit the better off, and best of all might increase over-crowding as more people pile onto cheaper trains.

All the same, though…

6. The current mess still has a political cost for the government

...because fares are rising and wages aren’t, and a huge number of people in marginal constituencies still have to travel by train.

I’m not convinced Labour’s nationalisation plan will magically solve all this. But I do think that – as in so many other policy areas – the Tories’ decision to act like the status quo is fine has and will cost the party votes.

7. Chris Grayling still shouldn’t be transport secretary

Not because of this, specifically (although running off to Qatar so he doesn’t have to answer questions about it is a nice touch). But he’s not exactly Mr Competent, is he? He once, while transport secretary, knocked a cyclist off their bike, and then lectured them, while being filmed. A man who never thinks, “Oh, might this look bad if somebody saw me?” is not a man who should hold high office.

Yet he remains – like David Davis, or Boris Johnson, or Liam “security risk” Fox, he’s protected by the invincibility shield of having been in favour of Brexit.

This point isn’t really about the fare rise, in all honesty, I just think Grayling is rubbish.

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


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.