Thursday, 5 January 2012

Do rail users have anything to complain about?

Like many people I did my first train journey of the New Year yesterday and was met with a fare rise. The little bit of my commute I do by bike (from Edinburgh Waverley to Edinburgh Park) had gone up a whopping 5% from £2.20 to £2.30. I'm a lucky one. My poor mother's unregulated off-peak older persons fare from Shipley to Leeds has gone up a whopping 100% from £1 to £2. 

One thing that's widely acknowledge about train travel in the UK is it's predominantly a mode of transport for the more affluent, the middle classes. The working classes use the bus. From what I vaguely know of the debate, the last Labour government used this social justice argument to lead to the fare increases we're now seeing and a reduction in government subsidy. This got me thinking - how have bus fares compared to train fares? Luckily for me a quick firtle on the interwebs revealed that the Department for Transport has been compiling an index of bus fares since 1995, hopefully available here. The index has gone from 100 in 1995 to 193 in 2010 - an almost doubling of bus fares over fifteen years. 

I went in search of the Rail Fares Price Inde. The UK National Statistics page that comes up in Google for this search, of course, doesn't include the stats themselves.I did a bit more searching and found that the Guardian, that great opener of data, had popped the Office of the Rail Regulator figures into a Google spreadsheet. Ahh, but that index had been re-indexed in 2009, so the data is not comparable. But, the spreadsheet includes a link to the original data and the ORR archive which includes a report (pdf) which reports on the index from 1997 to 2008. Page 47 of this report shows this index stood at 104.6 in 1997, which suggests that like the bus index it was reindexed in 1995. This means that the increase in rail fares over the period 1995 to the year of re-indexing (2009) was 51.2% (the index rose from 100 to 151.2). The Bus Fares index rose to 171.7 over the same period.

Well, this does suggest that in the period 1997-2008 rail users did not have anything to moan about and were being subsidised. This makes sense, since apart from in London and in very special circumstances, it is basically against the law for local authorities to subsidise anything but concessionary fares. But of course, we are in no way comparing like with like. Bus companies get a rebate on their diesel from the Treasury. They also gain a massive indirect subsidy from the upkeep of roads by local authorities and trunk road authorities. Railway companies need to pay Network Rail to keep the tracks in good working order.

So, what does all this mean? Well, as far as I'm concerned nothing. What is actually important is that we massively increase spending on public transport. We need to achieve massive modal shift in transport use, and if subsidising the middle classes to use trains and light rail as they don't want to be with the hoi-polloi on buses, achieves this, then I reckon we should get on with it.


  1. It strikes me that there are two needs for getting people to use public transport more (well, there are many, but there are two needs to *enable* people do use it more. Getting them to want to is probably another matter altogether)

    One, as you note, is to make it affordable, or at least more affordable than driving. The problem here is that once you need a car for one purpose, the huge sunk cost is paid and the marginal cost of using it for everything is small.
    This is actually starting to change by default, I think, for one person travelling alone, because the cost of fuel is rising faster than the cost of fares (this is anecdotal, I've not checked). Subsidy of public transport could help to some extent, but as soon as two people can share a car it's still going to be much cheaper to drive on most journeys.
    One way that this could be dealt with (apart from waiting until driving becomes unaffordable) is to try to shift to a different car ownership model, where less of the cost is fixed and more is per-mile. This could work nicely with the introduction of electric cars, which some manufacturers will already only lease rather than sell.

    The other problem, though, is that if more people are to use the railways there needs to be room for them! It seems to be increasingly common to see people who have paid £80 or more for a ticket having to sit on the floor or stand in the aisle for a many-hour journey. A train journey has the potential to offer time to relax or work while somebody else does the driving... but if there's no room for either of those things, one might as well drive in greater comfort. AIUI that's not always simply a lack of services or rolling stock, but at least in some areas is a "this railway is full" problem. Hence HS2, of course, but more investment is needed elsewhere as well...

    Hmm. I think I just stated quite a lot of the obvious :-)

  2. Simon - not obvious at all. I'd not considered the cost of motoring in terms of sunk costs either, but you raise an interesting point. The other anecdotal evidence for me is from my dear mother - I could write a PhD based on her experience! Since she got her free bus pass for over-60s she's using the bus which she never used before and since the marginal cost of driving has shot up she can't afford to drive. So, I think these marginal differences in cost can amount to behaviour change.

    And I agree on the investment point - I suppose that's one of the problems with the railways - the money has gone into subsidising fares and basically the railways have been starved of investment since 1945.

  3. I'm sure it'd be interesting to compare car vs bus vs train usage in Aberdeen and in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Despite fairly hefty increases in parking costs and operation hours on street parking in the city, bus fares have risen far far faster. With no train to use 'around town', this means I, for one, have completely written off ever using a bus. (if there's two of us on a short journey, a TAXI is comparable, and they go door to door, and usually run on time.

    P.S. I admit, I'm not the biggest fan of busses, but I use Lothian buses quite happily when in Edinburgh!