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It's time to freeze rail fares

Andrew Allen's picture

Welcome back to work. Did you have a good Christmas and New Year? Oh by the way, your train ticket has gone up £150. 

That is the nasty surprise the Government has lined up for many rail commuters from today. And the annual kick in the shins delivered by ministers is particularly painful this year. 

Today’s rise is the highest in five years at 3.6 per cent. It means the average season ticket into London is up £146 - twice as much as last year and well ahead of the standard measure of inflation and sluggish wage growth. 

The Government's justification for setting regulated rail fares (season tickets and the like) in this way is that passengers should contribute a bigger share of the cost of running the railway. But even in its own terms, that policy no longer makes sense. After years of above inflation price hikes, income from fares virtually covers the operating cost of the railways - passengers already pay for the services they use. 

Whether you use the trains or not, most people recognise that the railways deliver wider benefits in reducing congestion and cutting carbon. For this to happen there does need to be infrastructure investment, but this spending is necessary because of decades of neglect - not because of current use. And while the Government is promising some improvements for passengers down the line, people are being asked to pay when they can least afford it. Meanwhile, important projects such as electrification schemes have been cancelled raising questions about the scale of the Government's committment to rail. 

With ticket prices continuing to rise, there are clear signs the goose that lays the golden egg has finally had enough. Revenue from season ticket sales have now fallen for seven consecutive quarters and was down 8 per cent in the most recent figures. While several factors are behind this trend, including a decline in the traditional 9-to-5 and a rise in part time and flexible working, it appears Government policy has choked off demand and made regular rail travel unaffordable to large numbers of people. 

So, what should the Government do? The immediate response should be a fares freeze on regulated train tickets. Such a move is overdue and the Chancellor should at the earliest opportunity announce an intention to keep fares at their current level into 2019 and beyond. This would help struggling commuters and send a clear signal that the Government wants to stem the flow of peak time passengers away from the railways. A fares freeze would also bring rail into line with road taxation, where fuel tax has been frozen for seven years - saving the average driver £160 a year. 

More strategically, Campaign for Better Transport is calling for reform of the fares structure to make it fairer and simpler for all passengers. Progress has been painfully slow despite widespread agreement among industry, Government and passenger groups that the current system isn't up to job - 2018 needs to be the year talk is finally translated into action. 


Image courtesy of underclasscameraman.