Today sees the biggest rail news for years – the McNulty review on value for money on trains (or, as it turns out, the lack of it). So what exactly are the recommendations – and is it realistic to expect them to be met?
The review said tickets were already too high and the cost of running the network should be 30% lower to bring it in line with other European railways.
As a result, there’s to be a ‘full review of fares policy and structures, aiming to move towards a system that is seen to be less complex and more equitable’.
There’s also to be ‘management of peak demand and more efficient matching of demand with capacity’ with a fares ‘rebalancing’ – but no overall increase. It remains to be seen what this involves, but there’s no getting around the fact that there are only so many people you can fit onto a network at a given point.
The true cost of privatisation
And the train sector in Britain is surely in dire need of cost-cutting. Since so-called privatisation, the real-terms cost to the public purse is about five – yes, five – times what it was under British Rail, when the system’s only income was from the taxpayer.
Small wonder there are newer, safer trains and more frequent services – you’d expect it for that kind of cash.
So, it’s nice that McNulty reckons Britain’s 30% ‘efficiency gap’ can be closed by 2019, but with savings of £1 billion per year, that’s still only about a sixth of what the railways cost to the public purse/taxpayer each year.
Farepayer vs taxpayer
The Government has said it wants the farepayer to make up more of the cost of the railway, rather than the taxpayer.
‘User pays’ sounds like a good idea, but taken to extremes rapidly becomes complete gibberish. Some commentators on a previous Convo about non-drivers didn’t agree that taxpayers should subsidise trains. But in reality, we must have a rail network – Britain can’t function without it. So claiming that your taxes shouldn’t pay towards it if you don’t use trains makes little sense.
Plus, trains never make money – something other countries’ governments have long recognised, so extra revenue has to come from somewhere.
What sticks in my throat is that nobody – neither taxpayers nor farepayers (or the 48% of us who are both) – voted for costs to soar like this. So it seems very hard and distinctly ungreen to want farepayers to make up for it on their own.
And in all this rebalancing and efficiency gap closing I don’t detect much ‘let the train take the strain’ attitude. Where’s the actual encouragement to use public transport rather than the car? Instead we get demand management. Perhaps now it’s time to start focussing on supply management.