Turn up the heating. Snuggle under the duvet. The thought of turning up at the station for that miserable commute back to work after the long Christmas and New Year holiday is grim at the best of times.
You have to fight to get a seat in an overcrowded carriage where people are packed like sardines. The staff are rude or indifferent. The information is poor and the attitude to delays is callous or indifferent. Maintenance of the track is appallingly inefficient and worse than almost any other developed country. You think that’s bad enough. But from this Sunday (January 2), Britain’s beleaguered rail travellers will be whopped with eye-watering above-inflation fare rises that will make us the most expensive country in Europe to travel on a train.
Before you take the view that this is another rail-bashing article by a paid-up member of the roads lobby, let me say that I count myself a friend of the railways and I write these words in sorrow. I have spent the past two years travelling many thousands of miles around Britain’s rail system, commissioned by a major book publisher, to seek out the best that the nation that invented the railway can offer.
There is still much that is good. However, there is too much that is execrable. Every one of the criticisms listed above – the overcrowding, delays, inefficiency and rudeness – derives not from commuter bar-room gossip but from official reports published in the past twelve months. From Sunday rail travellers will face an average fare hike of 6.2 per cent across the country – but this masks many horrific rises, with some season ticket holders facing rises of more than 12 per cent for their journeys to work.
The government and the train operators have already prepared their script. Transport Secretary Philip Hammond schmoozes about his recently announced £8bn investment in modernising the railways, including 2,100 new carriages and electrification of lines to the west of London and around Manchester and Liverpool. He boasts, too, of giving the go-ahead for the £33bn project to build a new high-speed rail link to Birmingham. What could be fairer than asking passengers to dip into their pockets to help pay for it?
All this might be fine if the people who run our railways weren’t treating British rail travellers like idiots, thereby taking us all for a ride.
When the fare rises were announced last month, the corporate spinners went into overdrive, simply issuing a national average figure of 6.2 percent and refusing to give a breakdown for individual train companies as had happened in previous years. No wonder season ticket holders in Ashford in Kent, whose annual cost of getting to work rises a whopping 12.7 per cent on Sunday from £3,840 to £4,328, feel conned.
As for Mr Hammond’s much vaunted 2,100 new carriages, the reality is that just 339 of them will come into service by 2014, while only last month the influential Commons Public Accounts Committee produced a damning report on packed trains, saying that despite fare rises “already unacceptable levels of overcrowding will get worse over the next four years”. Incredibly, conditions to prevent overcrowding were never built into train firms’ contracts.
In an even more depressing bureaucratic fiasco, Britain’s newest multi-million pound express, an eleven-coach Pendolino tilting train, languishes in a siding as passengers fight to get seats on trains at London’s Euston because Mr Hammond’s civil servants are locked in a squabble with Virgin Trains about how it should be run.
The worst scandal of all, though, is identified by Sir Roy NcNulty, the distinguished former chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, who was commissioned by the last government to look into the value for money that our railways deliver. In his interim report just published, he reckons that the railways are wasting £1bn a year and that the travelling public seem to be near the bottom of priorities for railway bosses. As Roger Ford, technical editor of Modern Railways magazine put it yesterday: “Farepayers are being expected to pay for the iniquities of the politicians over the years. They’re asking us to pay a bigger proportion of a railway that simply costs more.”
As for those delays, a major new survey of passengers by the watchdog Passenger Focus, confirms what many of us already know. The key finding is that passengers are upset by a “lack of respect shown to them as either passengers or human beings”. It found that many passengers were given vague, inaccurate or conflicting information or simply none at all.
At the stroke of midnight tomorrow many of us will be hoping that by the close of 2011 there may be an end in sight to the worst of Britain’s austerities. But not for the poor rail traveller for whom sadly, there are more punishing fare rises to come. The current cap on regulated fare rises will be lifted from RPI plus 1 per cent to RPI plus three per cent annually – meaning that train fares will rise by 31 per cent in five years.
Since 1997, train have risen in real terms by 13%, while the cost of motoring has fallen by 14% and the price of one-way flights from UK airports has, on average, dropped by 35%. Pity the poor commuter, who has no alternative but to make that grim journey to the office, digging ever deeper into his pocket.
No matter what the spin, it appears that official policy is to price people off the railways by the back door , contrary to the coalition’s declared “commitment to fair pricing on the railways”. Last month the Transport Minister Theresa Villiers admitted as much by saying that next year’s fare rises will lead to a drop of 4 per cent in rail passenger numbers. This is confirmed in a new report from the recruitment firm Reed which claims that up to two million people may be planning to change the way they get to work or give up altogether as a result of the fare rises, with consequent damage to the economies of our cities and to the environment.
But there could be another less definable loss, too, as I discovered on my train journeys around Britain over the past two years. Our railways offer access to the best of our nation – to her historic and scenic heart – in the most civilised way of travel yet devised. We created the world’s first proper trains, and pride in the great heroes of the network – Trevithick, Stephenson, Brunel, runs deep through our national DNA.
We all retain memories, even if they are sometimes embellished over time, of clean trains that ran on schedule, helpful booking clerks, porters who would ask old ladies if they could carry their luggage, engine drivers who would let eager schoolboys peer into their cabs and waiting rooms with roaring fires for commuters to warm themselves up before beginning that long trek to the office.
For this reason I think the British will always offer the railways the benefit of the doubt. It is a pity the politicians and bureaucrats always seem to take us for a ride.
‘On the Slow Train Again’ by Michael Williams will be published by Random House in April 2011