Train fares are potentially going to rise again in the new year. Cue the collective sigh that goes up across the nation at the news. It seems that every time you go looking for a train ticket the price could be anything from completely reasonable (£3.00 from Lancaster to Windermere on one occasion for myself) to totally ridiculous (£123.00 from York to Edinburgh for a single). On this vein it often seems that rail prices are completely irrelevant to the distance travelled. It can oftentimes cost more to travel 50 miles than to travel 300, depending on the company who you’re travelling with, what time of day it is, and whether you’re trying to get up and down the country or across it. It does bring the thought to mind that it might make more sense to charge per mile rather than the seemingly random prices that can be charged at the moment. It would be most absurd if you got into a taxi in Lancaster town centre and they told you it would cost more to take you to Morecambe than to Glasgow. Why then is it so different when it comes to trains?
Come January train tickets are, on average, due to go up in price by 3.5% – that’s one percentage point above inflation. The cause for this is that the railways are getting more expensive to run – especially as they get older – and passengers are being told they need to pick up more of the bill. It’s been almost 20 years since the privatisation of the rail networks from British Rail and since then it seems, year on year, prices have risen. On certain networks, such as a single ticket from London to Manchester, prices have gone up 205% since 1995. This is nearly three times the inflation rate in the same period, whereas other journeys such as London to Brighton have only gone up 95%: still above inflation, but significantly less.
These price rises are so much of the pattern that it’s with resignation rather than indignation that the new prices were received. I’m not doubting that a countrywide railway system is exceedingly expensive to run, but some services are so creaky and rattling you do wonder what you’re paying for. According to a breakdown on the BBC website, 26% of the ticket fare goes on network rail improvement, 25% on staff costs and 22% on maintaining tracks and trains, with the rest being broken down into other smaller sections. The Labour Party has said that, were it to be elected in May, it would remove the ‘flex’ element of the train companies’ fare prices. This means they won’t be able to increase some fares outside of a set formula, so long as they decrease other. In other words they won’t be able to put up the prices of commuter services so long as they decrease the price of the Carlisle to Barrow train. In practice, however, I’m not sure it would be that simple.
There are other ways of taking a journey, but those can be much more cumbersome than taking the train. A bus journey to London, while as little as a quarter of the price of a train ticket, can also take about five hours from Leeds. If you’ve got time to spare then it can be quite pleasant, and the buses are comfortable and fast insofar as coaches go. As long as you’re on one of the coaches that are relatively direct and don’t stop at 42 pull-ins, then you can lose yourself in the journey. Not that trains can be any less annoying at times. Everyone knows that going up and down the country is doddle compared to getting across it. To get from Lancaster to my home town in North Yorkshire, although only seventy miles as the crow flies, can take up to four hours on public transport – far longer than it would take to get from Lancaster to London!
These price hikes are going to affect many, not least students, who often forgo cars for the “cheaper” option of public transport. Many students do of course, have rail cards, which ensure a certain discount on the full fare. Even with this discount, however, if rail prices continue to rise then I know for certain many will be having to look to other methods to travel, or simply take fewer journeys on the rail networks.