Leader: Britain’s great train robbery

Rail fares – already the highest in Europe – are expected to rise again next year. 


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Britain’s railways have become a source of national shame. For too many commuters, the mere act of travelling to work is now an arduous odyssey characterised by repeated delays, cancellations and overcrowding.

Northern rail, one of the worst offenders, eventually cut more than 9,000 services from its timetable after daily chaos. On Southern, as many as 267 passengers have crammed into carriages designed for 107 people.

And yet far from being compensated, commuters are due to pay more. Rail fares – already the highest in Europe – are expected to rise by around 3.5 per cent next year.

Since 2010, regulated train fares, which are set by the government, have risen by an average of 32 per cent. An annual season ticket from Peterborough to London now costs £7,864. In Germany, by contrast, one can purchase an annual travel card for all train journeys across the national network for less than half this amount: £3,797.

Rather than being increased, rail fares should be frozen and commuters automatically compensated for delays and cancellations. 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.

The cost is borne by the country as well as by commuters. A study by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership found that Northern rail’s risible performance had cost the region £38m this summer (and up to £1.3m a day).

The privatisation of the railways in 1995, which was hailed by the right as a panacea, ever more appears 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, whose dire performance has been widely criticised by passenger groups. 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. After years of failure, the government must act to end the legalised larceny of the railway system.

This article appears in the 17 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad