A couple of newspapers have recently picked up on Government proposals to hike selected rail fares around Leeds and Manchester.
In its consultation on the future of Northern Rail and Trans-Pennine Express, the Department for Transport (DfT) suggests some fares are too low and need to be raised, with the increase in revenue being used to pay for newer trains.
But DfT’s case does not stack up for two reasons. First, there is little disputing the fact that some fares in Greater Manchester and Leeds are lower than the national average. But does that justify singling them out in the way the DfT has done? A quick look at ticket prices across the country reveals a system stacked high with anomalies.
For instance, a ticket from Swindon to Bristol will cost you £17.60, whereas traveling from Manchester to Leeds - a journey of similar distance but longer duration - will cost you £27.60. Or compare the £10.50 you pay to travel the 30 miles from Worcester to Birmingham with the £26.90 you pay to trundle 32 miles from Sheffield to Manchester.
Unlike some continental railways, we do not set ticket prices via a standard per-kilometre charge. This gives us room to factor in local circumstances and wider social, economic and environmental considerations, but leaves us with a system of ticketing where anomalies exist everywhere. Sorting ticketing out would be a laudable ambition, but if Government really wants to get to grips with our broken fares system it needs a strong national stance. It makes no sense to pick on a few cheaper tickets in Leeds and Manchester.
What of the DfT's second claim that higher fares are needed to pay for newer train? While no one would disagree that it is time the crumbling diesel Pacers were taken to the great sidings in the sky, new trains are expensive. Charging £1 more to travel from Glazebrook to Manchester Oxford Road, for example, will not get the job done.
It all points to a paucity of ambition in Government’s plans for the north of England’s trains. The best way to increase revenue is not to increase a few fares but to increase passenger numbers right across the northern network. This is where Government should be targeting its efforts.