The case for renationalisation is clear - and popular
As many Britons return to work today, having eaten the last of the Christmas pudding, sung Auld Lang Syne and watched the traditional movies, they’ll being experiencing one final less-than-festive tradition – the raising of the rail fares.
The privatised train-operating companies are putting the expected spin on the rise: “Only 1.1 per cent“, they say, “the lowest rise for six years”.
That’s conveniently ignoring the fact that the rail companies are using the Retail Price Index, much higher than the Consumer Price Index which is the most common (and lower) measure.
But it was the campaign group Railfuture that really was on-the-money in its explanation of the direction of travel of rail fares, saying fares were “increasingly divorced from reality”.
There’s a real parallel here with property prices, also entirely out of scale with most workers’ pay.
The rise means an annual season ticket from Cheltenham Spa to London will cost £9,800 (heading toward half of an annual average salary of £26,500); Liverpool to Manchester will cost a smidge under £3,000.
Property prices are forcing more and more workers to commute longer and longer distances because they can’t afford rents or mortgages (with damaging impacts on their health, on family life and communities), but they’re also left less and less able to pay for that commute.
It’s almost as though successive governments have been trying to force people into their cars – despite the massive problems of congestion, of air pollution and community disruption caused by motor traffic.
Consider the fact that as Green MP Caroline Lucas found, between 1980 and 2013 the cost of motoring fell by 12 per cent while train travel cost rose by 62 per cent and bus and coach rose by 59 per cent.
Now, you might think that if perhaps services had improved, if passengers were seeing a better quality of service, there might be a justification for the rise. But still more than one in 10 trains is late.
I spend about three days a week travelling by train in Britain, which means the quality of service really matters to me.
And I get really passionate about changing our failed privatised system about once a week on average – whether it is having water dumped on my head and laptop from an airconditioning glitch on a Virgin train, enduring the almost inevitable delays of trains through Reading in the late evening, or putting up with the hideous Pendelino pong.
It’s past time to acknowledge that this is a system which is failing to provide us with the efficient, affordable, reliable transport that we need for the 21st century.
The fragmentation is costing us, the Rebuilding Rail report estimated, £1.2billion a year.
We’ve got services run for maximisation of profit, not for the benefit of passengers and communities.
And we have services that are simply poor quality, unreliable, and remarkably poor value for money.
Even time I use the Eurostar to Brussels I’m again reminded that it is cheaper, more reliable, and far less complicated than getting from London to Manchester or Liverpool by train.
That’s a reminder too that this isn’t just an issue for harried commuters in cattle-truck-like conditions, or families forced into their cars by expensive tickets. It’s also an economic issue – an excellent train system is a critical part of a modern economy.
I’ll be thinking of that next time I’m contemplating with a sigh a journey on the Transpenine so-called Express: a perfect reminder of the failure to provide for the needs of our economy and society (and how the infrastructure focus has been on London and the South East).
Bringing the railways back into public hands is one of the Green Party’s most popular policies – it’s even supported by a majority of Tory voters.
This morning I joined campaigners at King’s Cross station drawing attention to the rail fare rise, and to the obvious step, as set out in Green MP Caroline Lucas’s private member’s bill, to take franchises back into public hands as they lapse or terms are breached.
The government doesn’t have a solid majority in parliament, and the argument for change are clear and popular.
Today is a great day to think about how we might get together and seek to make that bill law – and start running our railways for the benefit of passengers, not shareholders.
Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party. Follow her on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.