I rejoice, or try to rejoice, in the great revival that has taken place since BR’s privatisation. But serious problems remain
I have a modest proposal to start the new year, which might appeal to anyone who has travelled by train during the holiday: we should withdraw the free passes held by the senior people at the Association of Train Operating Companies and make them buy their own tickets. This is the only way to bring home to them the fiendish complexity of the ticketing system over which they preside, and the grotesque difficulty of discovering the cheapest fare for any given route. Most of these people never buy a ticket from one year to the next. They and their families travel first class for free, which is why they remain in denial about how bad things are.
It is true that if the top people in the industry had to buy their own tickets, they would whenever possible get their secretaries to do the hard work. But one trusts that the secretaries would sometimes be made of stern enough stuff to tell their bosses that even for skilful people, who understand how to use computers, buying tickets is often a frustrating and time-consuming business. A student I know who needs to return at the start of this month to Sheffield discovered from four different websites a bewildering variety of tickets at prices ranging from £31 to £60, and was then able to buy one for a mere £19.45 by leaving from a different station, only three miles away from the one he had first tried. Once the fat controller’s spouse and children can no longer travel from one end of the land to the other for free, they too will observe with some vigour that the system has its defects.
As if the tortuous ticketing arrangements weren’t enough, fares will on Wednesday rise by an average of 3.9%, or 4.2% for season tickets. This is not, however, something that can be blamed on the train companies. For year after year, ticket prices have risen by more than the rate of inflation because our politicians have decided that passengers should bear an increasing proportion of the cost of improving our railways.
The defects of the present system should not, I believe, seduce us into imagining that the answer lies in renationalisation. Since the admittedly very strange and in some ways unsatisfactory privatisation of the mid-1990s, the railways have seen a vast rise in the number of passengers, and also a vast amount of new rolling stock. Trains have not in general got faster, but they have become more frequent. It is hard to imagine that such an energetic transformation would have occurred if the railways had remained in public hands.
Like most people who can remember them, I look back on the days of British Rail with a degree of affection. I am just old enough to recall travelling in a train pulled by a steam engine from Kidderminster to Birmingham, the smoke pouring past the window in a most gratifying fashion, and being allowed as a small child to ride in the driver’s cab of a diesel that ran from Thorpeness Halt to Saxmundham in east Suffolk.
But these were years of decline. As a passenger, one gazed out on acre upon acre of derelict sidings, and like so many others, the branch line via Thorpeness to Aldeburgh was closed on Dr Beeching’s recommendation in the 1960s. So I rejoice, or try to rejoice, in the great revival that has taken place since BR’s privatisation. However, serious problems remain.
Why not be more decisive about tackling them? Since our politicians have decided to set such high fares, and are also responsible for complications ranging from the ticketing mess to the wretchedly over-elaborate franchising arrangements, it would be a good thing if they too had to pay for their own tickets. Railway bosses are not the only people who have become too cut off from the experience of ordinary people. So has our political class.