The Standard Anytime Return fare from Leeds to Plymouth is an eye-watering £387, substantially more than the typical cost of a round trip to New York. To reduce this fare to anything near an affordable level means securing one of a dwindling number of advance tickets or engaging in a practice known as ‘split ticketing’. This exploits a loophole in the rules for rail travel by breaking the journey down into shorter, cheaper trips.
A recent return trip for two to Plymouth using this method required a total of 44 tickets – to use a single direct CrossCountry train in each direction. No changes, no breaks of journey. That it is necessary to go to these ridiculous lengths to be able to travel by train is symptomatic of the dysfunction of our privatised rail network.
Not serving London, CrossCountry does not attract a large and lucrative business market in which expense accounts help to support the cost of cheaper tickets. But it does provide a vital and socially necessary service connecting a huge range of towns and cities throughout the UK. Under British Rail, these services were cross-subsidised by profitable routes elsewhere. Prior to privatisation the Intercity sector of BR required no public subsidy. It was highly efficient and fares were affordable.
That is not how the railway works today. Post-privatisation, the cost to the government of supporting rail services increased dramatically as franchisees required additional subsidy; not to guarantee a public service but to guarantee profits. The experienced workforce was deliberately broken up and skills were lost. Routine maintenance was neglected by the privatised railway to improve the bottom line. The price paid for this dose of free market ideology was a total avoidable 50 deaths and 907 injuries in the incidents which followed at Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield, Grayrigg, Southall and Potters Bar.
Resolving this mess cost billions, and the Treasury increasingly began to balk at the level of public subsidy required by the railways, although this was still considerably lower than the European norm. The result has been substantial cuts to subsidies for rail services over successive years. In real terms, the level of subsidy for CrossCountry services has fallen by nearly 40% since 2005, with passengers being forced to pick up the difference. Rail subsidy per passenger mile in the UK is now only a third of that in Germany, and only a quarter of that in France.
Our railway is now beset by the kinds of sharp practice that led to the collapse of Carillion and other ideologically-driven contracting out arrangements: deliberate underbidding to win contracts then demanding bailouts (Virgin West Coast), ludicrously optimistic profit forecasts leading to total commercial failure (Virgin East Coast), poor planning and attacks on knowledgeable and experienced staff leading to appalling service reliability (Northern, Southern, TransPennine). The failure of private sector contractors to invest in skills limits our ability to modernise ageing infrastructure, and a recent survey revealed that rail operators are now second only to car dealers as the nation’s least trusted industry.
It is now long overdue that we recognise the role of our railway as a vital public service, one which should be owned by the public and run for the benefit of the public. Shipley Labour is campaigning for better services and a fairer deal for the people of West Yorkshire, and in support of Labour’s plans for rail renationalisation.
Stephen Blundell – Shipley Branch member September 2018
Please note that member blog posts do not necessarily represent national or local Labour Party policy.