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.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.