Premium rail product? That’s the early morning smell of a stranger’s armpit

Rail minister Norman Baker insists that fares are fairly fair. He must be one of those paragons who books online, months in advance

Liberal Democrat under-secretary of state for transport Norman Baker must struggle to know what to say sometimes. He’s in a difficult position: part of a government many of whose policies he probably disagrees with, and not in charge of his own bit of it. And, even at the best of times (which, the overwhelming consensus tells us, is not now), transport is a subject which elicits more complaint than praise. People are vocal in their hatred of traffic jams, trains that are crowded or late or expensive – or crowded, late and expensive – bus services that are irregular and cycle lanes that are basically a bit of pavement repainted to fulfil some sort of quota and only result in the cyclists, after years of maltreatment from cars and lorries, taking it out on pedestrians in what I like to call a “cycle of abuse”. We are apt to blame politicians for these things. We are less apt to praise them after a pleasant train journey or a surprisingly clear bit of M25. People notice the cones but are bad at spotting the no cones.

So it must be tricky for Norman Baker to know what to say. Particularly on a day, like last Wednesday, when there’s been a big, above-inflation hike in rail fares. He must have been worried that he might say the wrong thing – something that would make things worse – so presumably there was a lot of thought and discussion between him and his aides before he decided to go with: “We’re not doing too bad.”

It didn’t go down too good – largely because it’s so obviously incorrect (factually as well as grammatically). Britain’s railway network is by far the most expensive in Europe, incredibly overcrowded and not very fast. It is a crap railway network, on which millions of us glumly rely, where the season tickets have such astronomical and inexplicable price tags you’d think they were modern art – and certainly the 7.44am Henley-on-Thames to Paddington service is more crowded than the trendiest private view, even if it doesn’t have quite the same buzz.

I’m not sure what Baker should have said instead, and of course he had to say something – “being available for comment when rail fares go up” is at the top of an under-secretary of state for transport’s job description, along with “being available for comment when there’s been a train crash due to poorly maintained safety equipment”. So maybe he should have said: “At least there hasn’t been a train crash!” But where does that leave him come the next train crash? “I hope it will come as some comfort to the families of the dead that their loved ones are no longer being overcharged for travel.”

Obviously what he can’t say is: “Look, if you were happier to pay more tax, the railways would be cheaper and better – that’s how other countries like France manage it. There’s no magic Mediterranean rail aptitude like there is for having a lunchtime drink without wanting to get pissed.” That would lead to people talking about the waste in government and why money currently spent on Trident or bureaucracy or benefits couldn’t be used instead – and to other people complaining that they don’t use railways and why can’t the subsidy go towards roads, or off fuel duty, or to maintain their local museum – and to a general awakening of our ongoing national dividing-up-the-bill discussion in which the middle classes moan about having to pay for the unemployed’s starter while the super-rich magnanimously make a contribution towards the mineral water.

The main point Baker was trying to make was, as he told BBC Radio 5 Live: “Once you take the basket of fares, include early advance and off-peaks, we are not nearly as expensive as has been presented.” In other words, once you factor in the cost of tickets that no one wants, the picture is not so bleak. As Baker said: “You could argue that the people who are travelling in the rush hour are using the premium product and therefore ought to pay something which reflects that premium product which they are buying.” By “the premium product”, I presume he means the early morning smell of a stranger’s armpit.

As well as putting a premium on premium product, he also conceded that “walk-on fares” were expensive. That means tickets for people who haven’t planned ahead – who’ve just gone to a railway station and got on a train without scouring websites months in advance to spot bargains. They’re a slow-moving target, those guys (particularly after a signal failure). If you haven’t got your shit together to buy a ticket in advance, what are your chances of getting it together to complain about pricing? The number of lobbyists campaigning in the interests of the unprepared is zero.

Most of us seem to have accepted the notion that, post-privatisation, there is no longer a fixed price for a particular train journey – that the cost must necessarily vary according to how much the train operator thinks it can extort at time of purchase. If you’re buying it on the day, or even on the train, they’ve got you over a barrel (not literally – many of the seats are less comfortable than that). Maybe this is just an expression of market forces, although this is still a market heavily subsidised by the state, but it has always seemed to me like a tax on spontaneity. A railway station is no longer a place of possibility – where hundreds of destinations flicker on the departures board to tempt you. It’s just the way to work, or the place you go for long pre-arranged journeys. Your pre-bought internet tickets are the papers that allow you to travel, like in – just to get totally over-dramatic for a second – Hitler’s Russia.

Those who plan ahead get ahead – that’s the rule. It is the wise, conscientious, evolutionarily sound approach to life. It’s true for bees, for squirrels and for humans. But do our various railway companies have to contribute further to the woes of the slapdash? Anyone organised enough to book a ticket months in advance – to have all their movements so precisely planned – will surely die rich in any case. Does it really help society for someone like that to have their travel costs subsidised by forgetful idiots and spendthrift romantics? But even Norman Baker’s spin doctor isn’t stupid enough to stick up for them.

David Mitchell’s autobiography, Back Story, is out now © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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