Chris Grayling’s attempt to blame the rail unions for fare rises won't work

Commuters' anger will continue to be directed at substandard rail firms and an inept government. 

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The mere mention of Britain's railways is now enough to trigger outrage. For too many commuters, the daily journey to work has become an arduous odyssey characterised by repeated delays, cancellations and overcrowding.

And yet far from being compensated, passengers are set to pay more. The government has today confirmed that fares will rise by 3.2 per cent in January 2019 (in line with the Retail Price Index), meaning the average commuter will now pay £2,980 for their season ticket, an increase of £786 since the Conservatives entered power in 2010. And this in a country where prices are already five times higher than the rest of Europe and where fares have risen at twice the rate of wages since 2008 (42 per cent compared to 18 per cent).

Chris Grayling, the comically inept Transport Secretary, has sought to pin the blame on the rail unions. In a letter to the RMT, Aslef, Unite and TSSA unions, he wrote: “As you will be aware, one of the industry’s largest costs is pay … it is important that pay agreements also use CPI [Consumer Price Index ] and not RPI in future when it comes to basing pay deals on inflation.”

Rail unions and commuter groups have long argued that fares should be increased in line with the lower CPI, rather than RPI, measure of inflation (which the Office for National Statistics itself has described as a “very poor” guide). Grayling has agreed to meet this demand - but only on the condition that CPI is also used to set pay. 

Yet the Transport Secretary’​s attempt at divide and rule is unlikely to succeed. Passenger ire is directed, above all, at the private rail firms and the government. The former for their substandard service, the latter for its derisory response. 

Northern Rail, one of the worst offenders, eventually cut more than 9,000 services from its timetable after daily chaos. On Southern Rail, as many as 267 passengers have crammed into carriages designed for 107 people. Were pay restrained, unions warn, the savings would risk being pocketed by private shareholders (who last year reaped dividends of £165m even as the taxpayer subsidy to the rail industry reached £3.5bn). 

The government and rail firms insist that the fare increases are essential to fund investment. But the inadequate service endured by commuters does little to aid their case. Passengers, the RMT says, are paying “more for less”. Worse, the current Byzantine system is shamelessly designed to deter complaints. Research by the consumer rights body Which? found that only 33 per cent of passengers entitled to compensation apply for it. 

Tory MPs sensitive to marginal voters (many of whom commute to work), such as Harlow’s Robert Halfon, have sounded the alarm. “The Prime Minister spoke about helping the 'just about managing,'” Halfon told the Sun. “If this is to be more than words we should be sure we don’t let these fares rise in the way it looks like they are going to. We’re talking about raising fares, fuel duty, other taxes … this is not what the Conservative party should be about.”

Labour has called for automatic compensation, a windfall tax on poorly-performing companies and the renationalisation of the railways as franchises expire. The privatisation of the railways in 1995, which was hailed by the right as a panacea, is increasingly regarded as a disastrous policy error. 

For the second time in only nine years, the government was recently forced to renationalise the East Coast Main Line after its private operators – Virgin and Stagecoach – defaulted on payments. Rail experts warn that other franchises may soon be renationalised out of necessity.

Though the British state has routinely been deemed unfit to run lines, its Dutch and German counterparts have not. The Greater Anglia, West Midlands and ScotRail franchises are majority-owned by the Dutch state company Abellio. Chiltern Railways and Northern are owned by Germany’​s Deutsche Bahn. Through payments that far exceed pre-privatisation levels, British taxpayers are inadvertently subsidising foreign governments.

State ownership is not an invariable good: few are nostalgic for the era of British Rail. Yet a dogmatic preference for the private sector has not served the public interest. Until the government acknowledges as much, the railways will remain politically toxic. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.