Today we have seen what happens when the government oversteps the mark with rising rail fares – everyone rightly cries foul. Be in no doubt, ministers and rail bosses alike will have heard the crystal-clear voices of protest at stations up and down the land today.
What a way to start the working week – with a throbbing new year headache caused by outrageous rail fare hikes averaging 3.1 per cent in England and Wales and very nearly 3 per cent in Scotland. That leaves the average commuter paying almost £3,000 more in 2019 for a season ticket – disgraceful and totally unnecessary.
It’s not as though 2018 was a glorious year when it comes to the performance of this fragmented and largely privatised rail system. Millions of passengers experienced first-hand the utter chaos of timetable changes, which caused such deep and widespread disruption across the railways from May onwards.
What today tells us is that the game is up for the government and the privateers. We can all see their circus for what it is; clowns fleecing the public, while the shareholders laugh all the way to the bank.
The biggest clown in the ring is Failing Chris Grayling, of course. The amount by which train companies can raise regulated fares is the responsibility of the Transport Secretary. So, Grayling had the power to stop today’s rises, he just chose not to use it. On BBC Radio 4’s Today he gave the game away, admitting that under the present system “there are always going to be fare increases because the costs of living rise.”
What Grayling knows, and the public know too, is that were Britain to move to a nationalised railway, it would be a very different picture indeed. Fares would put people not profit first and the network would be run for the people not the privateers.
This is hardly rocket science – it works very well in other countries, and even the Financial Times admits that “rail passengers in Britain pay at least twice as much as those in other big European countries”, with travellers here paying 55p a mile over the past year, compared with just 29p in France and an average of 14p across Europe.
In spite of this, what we have is the perverse spectacle of Grayling re-spinning old news from the Ministry of Gridlock. His pathetic wheeze – half-price railcards for school and college students. Freezing fares for all passengers would be of help to the hard-pressed commuter, but it’s only one part of what it takes to run a railway.
No passenger believes the Tories have got a clue how to run a rail system and Britain does not need a rail system in which a compensation culture dominates. Rather, it needs a fully integrated service in which trains turn up, run on time and have advisory staff in ticket offices and on platforms.
In 2019 let’s together – likely under a Labour government – look towards a different kind of railway in our country: one which puts passengers, service and fairness at the heart of the network.
Manuel Cortes is general secretary of the TSSA union