It would essentially be third-class rail travel, but if commuters show they are willing to stand, fares would come down
There was predictable uproar at the news that rail fares are going up again – by more than 6%. Commuter fares, in particular, hit the squeezed middle hard. An annual season ticket from outer London costs £2,136, equivalent to £3,150 of pre-tax salary, or 12% of the earnings of a typical full-time worker. That is huge.
The outrage is understandable. But what’s the solution? We need lower fares. More subsidy is not the answer: there are more pressing needs at the moment. We need a lower cost railway. The McNulty review had some useful material, but it was small stuff.
A low-cost commuter network would have carriages designed for standing room only. People take up a lot less space if they stand up. Call it third class if you like. If enough people are willing to stand, we need fewer carriages, and less power to haul the train. As a result operating costs fall, and prices can fall with them. We may even be able to run fewer trains, outside the main peak. That implies a big saving in wages. The biggest savings of all come from avoiding having to lengthen platforms, and rearrange stations and signalling to cope with the rise in passenger numbers. These are very expensive items.
Of course people prefer to sit down – but the reality is that most people are willing to stand. We know this because every day the vast majority of commuters at London terminal stations jump on the next train, even if it is standing room only, rather than boarding a later train. Commuters from Waterloo to Wimbledon are a good case study: trains typically leave every three minutes, from adjacent platforms. Yet people overwhelmingly choose to board the first train, even if they have to stand.
I propose we trial this idea on one route. We remove seats from some carriages in some trains, and install an Oyster reader in those carriages. If you board the third-class carriage – showing that you are willing to stand – and touch in, you get a refund of say half the fare. If lots of people choose this option, we roll the idea out to all commuter trains. In the medium term we should be aiming for a £1 flat fare. If no one chooses this option, you can burn me in effigy for having a daft idea.
We also need to think seriously about whether all stations or even all lines are actually worth having. We built our network in the Victorian era, before cars were invented. As a result we needed more stations then than now. Does the town of Dorking – population 17,000 – really need three rail stations? Do we really want to pay to maintain 30 stations that are used by fewer than one person per day? In total, 30% of our stations now account for less than 1% of passengers. Can this be a sensible way to run a railway? Having stations that are not used much also makes for a worse service, as the train stops, pointlessly, at station after station.
Alistair Darling was right when he said that paying for little-used trains to “cart fresh air around the country” makes no sense. These lines should be given to local groups to run on a low-cost basis, or closed if they cannot be revived. That in turn would cut the costs of running the railway, and allow fares to fall on lines that are heavily used.
A railway system made up of high-quality intercity services, allied to cost-effective commuter rail in London and other major cities, would cut costs for taxpayers and passengers alike. It requires ministers to stop obsessing about glamour projects like high-speed rail and concentrate on taking tough decisions to deliver the railway that gets used, at a price we can afford.