Why we're still being taken for a ride by our train companies

There are too many "vested interests" to keep happy.

This week, two stories broke regarding the rail industry. On Tuesday it was the fact that fares are set to rise in January by up to 11 per cent on some journeys. That pushed the second to the very top of the news agenda: today's news that First Group has beaten off Virgin’s bid for the West Coast Main Line franchise.

The rise in fares was as predictable as death and taxes, and slightly more depressing than both. In real terms, they're now up a fifth since 1995. An annual ticket from London to Brighton now costs as much as a second-hand VW Golf, and that leaves change for some go-faster stripes for the seafront. Our trains are among the most expensive in Europe. Why?

If the train business doesn’t seem like any other industry, that’s because it’s not. Successive governments have never quite decided whether they’re a business or a social necessity – and they know full well there’s a decent case for the latter, because they’re clean, and thousands of people don’t die on them every year, which they do on the roads.

That means that under the current model you’ve got three competing obligations: quality (which takes investment), affordability and shareholder dividends. You can’t meet all three without money – so the burden for this was supposed to be split between the taxpayer and the passenger. That split used to be roughly 50/50, but the burden on passengers has crept up and up for the last 10 years towards 75 per cent passenger input.

You might say this could pose a few conflicts of interest, and you’d be completely understating the case. According to the Department for Transport the case for structural change has not been made. And this is true, assuming you discard countless industry experts, analysts and, um, the government’s own command paper on the subject.

It’s hard to know where to start. Fares can’t continue to rise at this rate, or the only people taking the train will be Lakshmi Mittal and at a push the Queen, assuming she can get an old person’s rail card. But the government hasn’t given any indication as to when the fares will stop going up. Given that it’s committed to £18bn of investment on goodies like Crossrail and Thameslink, not saying anything is probably a good idea, because it's going to be a decade at least.

But to be honest this is less of a problem than a point raised in the aforementioned command paper: the way the current system heaps the risks on taxpayers while giving fat payouts to shareholders, like the £88m pocketed last year by Stagecoach’s two founders (the polite euphemism in such reports is of “incompatible incentives”). This is due to the fact Labour (unchallenged by the other parties) brought in “revenue support” clauses, which guarantee taxpayers cover 80 per cent of shortfall between franchisees' forecasts and their actual revenues.

They’re not small, these sums of money. To pick an example entirely at random: despite paying out £340m to its shareholders last year, Stagecoach - the company with the directors who presumably keep their earnings in a pit with a diving board like Scrooge McDuck - also received £68m in bailout funds for the third South West Trains franchise a year ahead of schedule, after taking legal action against the government. At least RBS waited for things to really go belly up before they shafted us. This sort of thing might annoy those readers who think the railways should be publicly funded, but there’s something for everyone here, because ever since the railways were privatised the subsidies have flown up.

They might be siphoning cash straight out of the exchequer, but don’t worry, these companies are rummaging around in your pockets for loose change at the same time. Ever wondered why buying a ticket from a machine is like attempting to deal in equity derivatives while a 30-strong, tutting queue builds up behind you? Why you can get a “group save” in some places but not others, why you never seem to know for sure if your advance ticket is valid for the journey you’re trying to take, what constitutes "off peak", when “anytime” actually is?

You’d think the train companies would realise there’s an issue, what with successive reports on the subject by the Office of Rail Regulation and Which? pointing out that we all find the labyrinthine systems confusing, but maybe the message hasn’t got through. Either that or overpayments and fines are a nice little sideline.
 
Still, some friendly ticket office staff can help us, can’t they? Well, this leads us back to First Group’s bid for the West Coast rail franchise. It prompted Richard Branson to write to David Cameron, reminding him that the East Coast line had been handed to GNER and then National Express, both of whom hadn’t been able to deliver on their promised plan. Branson was apparently writing from the moral highground despite the fact Virgin has received £1.4bn in subsidies after, well, failing to deliver on its plans for the franchise. Sounds ludicrous? Well done; you're getting the hang of this.

What makes First Group more attractive? The fact it promises to run the line for less. How will it do that? Assuming you don't buy the growth predictions of eight per cent (generous), there’s only one way, and that’s by cutting jobs. This is assuming it does run the line, and doesn’t hand back its contract after promising to pay overly-ambitious premiums, as it did with another last year (which actually meant it was able to keep running the franchise for a few months without paying for it - result!).

The great irony is that somehow all this mess hasn't created that terrible a service. Anyone who thinks renationalisation is a silver bullet hasn't spent six hours in the waiting room at a provincial station on the Continent with no air conditioning and nothing but the town lunatic's thousand-yard-stare to keep you company; pretty much my summer of Interrailing in microcosm. But then anyone who thinks something good can come out of bodies that aren't competing in any normal way probably wasn't watching the women's badminton at the Olympics. The fact is, no one wins.

Actually, that's not quite true. Take a deal like Chiltern Railways' promise to invest £250m to cut journey times between London and Birmingham and provide an alternative route between Oxford and London. It's borrowing the money from Network Rail, which owns the infrastructure. Network Rail can do this because the government guarantees all its debt. The government has promised that Chiltern's successor will pay the outstanding amount once Chiltern's franchise ends, thus guaranteeing a loan from funds it's already underwriting. Have you got that? No, me neither. And such arcane deals require a veritable army of lawyers and consultants; an army that's deliberately complicated the various bidding processes in order to make itself ever more needed.

If Labour don't opt for renationalisation after its policy review, let's hope it looks seriously at simplifying the system - one train operator; one provider of infrastructure. It probably won't happen: there are a lot of "vested interests" (the same ones who were the party's corporate partners only a few years ago) to keep happy. There are all sorts of other ways of getting value for money out of the railways which haven't been explored like developments around train stations, but this is the big one. The alternative is that we all continue being taken for a ride.

 

First Group has beaten off Virgin’s bid for the West Coast Main Line franchise. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Getty
Show Hide image

I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.