Nick de Bois was MP for Enfield North from 2010 to 2015.
It is entirely possible that rail fares, and in particular rail commuter fares, will become the next iconic “cost of living” issue that will fuel huge dissatisfaction amongst the travelling British public and become politically toxic. During the last parliament the issue was the one most consistently raised with me over the entire five years, and aroused more indignation, frustration and sometimes anger principally because most commuters felt powerless to do something about the appalling service and relentlessly rising fares. This summer, despite the domination of the news by Team GB’s fantastic success in the Olympics, commuter misery has featured prominently because of strikes, fare rises and frankly disgraceful service, most notably on Southern.
This week three Conservative MP’s from the region have recognised the passenger tensions and urged ministers to exempt commuters from the forthcoming RPI linked rise of 1.9 per cent on seriously underperforming operators. Transport Focus, the passenger watchdog, are fully behind the proposal – not surprisingly. However, the response from DfT will do little to appease commuters, regardless of its accuracy. It points out that wages are growing faster than rail fares (which are pegged to inflation), and it is true that because of this action season ticket holders will benefit by up to £400 on average between now and 2020. But that misses the point entirely which is that the commuter has no credible choice on how to get to work and has therefore no means of acting in response to declining service levels.
Twenty years on since Conservative-led rail privatisation, which promised competition on the railways leading to improved services, it has in fact only produced competition at the point of the franchise bidding process, which then lands one company with a contract for a considerable length of time. The idea is that taxpayer and passenger value is derived from the process, but often the franchise is awarded from a narrow choice of competitors bidding for the proposal on the back of performance promises. At the time of the last election TSGN (an amalgamation of Govia and Great Northern) were handed a seven-year franchise for the Thames Link routes that affected my then constituency – they were big on promises but there was no genuine sense of passenger accountability for delivering them beyond publishing performance data.
The average suburban commuter will spend approximately 230 hours a year on a train, if all runs well. That’s almost ten days which, over a working life of 40 years is over a year of his or her life spent on a train. If they are from an outer London suburb in zone 6 they are now required to pay £2364.00, and if you are 18 miles away in Stevenage you pay a whopping £4,820.00 – a bill which is now set to go up by nearly two per cent. And what can they expect for this fare? The odds are not good of having a pleasant experience, even if punctuality is not an issue. At average peak times, commuters on many suburban lines face tired rolling stock with precarious heating systems or, in summer, carriages that feel like mobile greenhouses. Many suburban commuters have a one in four chance of getting a seat, yet they pay the same fare as their luckier neighbours. Many are undertaking only the first part of a two-part journey, as they will then embark on the tube.
So when the hard-pressed commuter is once again standing on his station platform wondering when his train will arrive, will he be able to get on it, and how late will he be for work, what choice does he or she really have but to sit it out and wait? For my constituents at the time the buses were hopelessly routed to offer a serious choice to get to central London, the car could do the job but he or she would be faced with about £40 of charges for the privilege including parking, congestion charge and probably 4 hours in the car there and back. Cycle? Yes, that’s a possibility, but far less attractive in winter – however inspiring our Team GB cyclists may have made you feel.
Importantly, as Tony Lodge from the Centre for Policy Studies and author of Rail’s Second Chance – putting competition back on track highlighted on ConservativeHome last month, the Competition and Markets Authority are looking at whether new open access high speed services can compete with Virgin on the West Coast Main Line to serve Euston, the Midlands and Blackpool. Crudely, what this broadly asks is, can more than one rail operator run on the same routes? Or to be more consumer friendly, can the customer vote with his or her feet? That’s why any open access proposals have to benefit commuter passenger routes.
Of course there is a need to protect investment in rail infrastructure which still accounts for some 50-60 per cent of delays nationally, but if the DfT endorse the anticipated recommendation and act on it then real competition can thrive. This would deliver downward pressure on fares, create greater incentives to enhance service quality, encourage innovation and ensure we make more effective use of the network.
Jeremy Corbyn’s populist case for nationalisation will only gain more traction across voters of all persuasions unless the Government goes on the offensive and embraces real competition, leaving rail travellers with a real choice. As YouGov reported earlier this year:
“The case for saying yes [to rail nationalisation] is contained in YouGov data down the years. The last time we asked specifically about it was last November. 59% told us they supported renationalising the railways; just 21% were opposed. Even Conservative voters divided 48-35% in favour.”
When arguments raged in the last parliament about energy prices, the Government was keen to embrace further competition as the answer. The same is true here, but this time we should deliver it – and with a Conservative majority, we can.