Monday night’s Dispatches programme painted a pretty grim picture of the plight of train passengers in the UK. Overcrowded carriages, delayed trains, and a bewildering array of eye-watering fares and ticket restrictions that seem to bear no relation to how far you’re travelling.
For frustrated passengers, it’s satisfying to see the state of Britain’s trains given some serious airtime. But who’s responsible – and what should be done about it?
These are timely questions, given that the government is soon to publish the McNulty study, a major review of the structure and funding of the UK rail industry. It is easily dismissed as dull and technical, but the study’s recommendations will shape the UK railway for years to come.
The findings emerging from the study so far are a mixed picture from the fare-paying passenger’s point of view. There is a welcome acknowledgement that the railways cost too much, both for the taxpayer and the farepayer.
Fragmented and inefficient, they are highly expensive to run, and passengers pay the price with some of the highest rail fares in the world; some annual season tickets now cost the equivalent of a fifth of the average UK salary. The McNulty study reckons that up to £1 billion a year could be cut from the industry’s cost.
Whether passengers are able to reap the rewards of these savings in the form of more affordable fares remains to be seen.
The study is also likely to suggest that we need a fundamental review of the complicated, confusing fare structure. Finding the cheapest fare often eludes the ticketing staff, never mind the passengers, and anomalies in the system mean that the person in the seat next to you could have paid significantly less for the same journey.
But there are very worrying signs that the severe overcrowding commuters face every day may not be addressed by new trains and longer platforms, but by hiking fares during peak times in order to price people off the rush hour. This ignores the fact that a great many people don’t have the luxury of choosing their own working hours, and the consequences of such a move for the labour market and the wider economy.
There are also signs that the rail industry could move towards airline-style pricing, further reducing the options to travel flexibly and at short notice.
So we stand at a defining moment for the future of the railways in this country. Watching the programme and getting frustrated at the state of Britain’s trains, many will simply sigh and grit their teeth as they prepare for another day of crowded and expensive commuting.
But passengers shouldn’t have to put up with such hellish journeys day in, day out, and the growing anger among this group is being reflected in programmes like Dispatches and campaigns like Fair Fares Now.
With the whole structure and funding of the industry currently on the table, now is the moment to put passengers first and actually provide a railway that works.
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