Essentially just a bigger hole in the wallet – but the wider question is should the commuter or taxpayer be footing the bill?
So just what are rail passengers getting for their extra 6.2%? For all the talk of investment and the rail minister’s mind-bending suggestion that it was to help keep future fares down, it is essentially just a bigger hole in the wallet.
The wider question is should the commuter pay more, or the taxpayer? And it has more or less been decided by all parties that the weight has to swing onto the passenger.
Even with private operators, rail provision remains an essential public service. Talk of consumer choice will sound particularly hollow to people who have built their lives in the commuter belt and now endure soaring travel costs.
The train operators say regulated fare rises do not directly benefit them as the balance of their franchise payments are tweaked accordingly – but they do provide cover for operators to raise unregulated fares at the same time. And they point out that the numbers wanting to travel by train have reached record levels – explaining why many commuters still wonder when they will get a seat for their money.
Yet the privatised railways have received a taxpayer subsidy that makes British Rail nostalgists weep – currently down to around £4bn a year. None can say with certainty whether a nationalised industry, hobbled from years of underinvestment, would have performed as well with the same funding.
Few on any side dispute that, as the McNulty report concluded, there is scope for cutting costs on the railways: they just don’t agree where. Unions question how much has leeched out into shareholder profit, operators ask how much could be saved by changing working practices.
The subsidy might be questioned even by those less driven by deficit reduction and a smaller state. But the coalition’s higher season tickets will cost many passengers far more than would a penny extra on income tax – and they are accumulating each year.
No party would explicitly encourage more commuters back on to the road yet George Osborne did change tack for motorists. Transport secretary Justine Greening, left with egg on her face when Osborne aborted a planned rise in fuel duty the day after she had publicly defended it, has quickly positioned herself with commuters this time by saying she will request funds to keep fare rises down.
Transport minister Theresa Villiers has instead been left to square another whopping rise in fares with the coalition’s stated aim to “end the era of inflation-busting fare rises”. It looks like being a long era yet.
And here’s a footnote to rile the green-minded rail passenger: the crucial July RPI figure on which train fare increases are based is pushed up a notch every year by a rise in air fares in the summer holidays than in June. Might a different month remove the insult from this annual injury?