Rail travel is now so pricey that it’s putting practical and emotional distance between us all
Train travel is becoming a luxury that only the wealthy can afford. This year, the 10th in a row, ticket prices have risen above inflation, and some fares have almost doubled. Complaining about the trains has been a national pastime for a very long time: to be British is to exist in a semi-permanent state of annoyance about the railways, muttering and clock-watching and bringing up that mangled quote about Mussolini making the trains run on time, which is supposed to make you wonder, for one awful pissed-off moment, whether fascism might not have been better after all.
Now, however, there’s actually a serious problem. Ticket prices have risen so much that the only people who can really afford to use the railways are those who don’t really need to. It costs £101 pounds to get to Norwich, a price at which you’d expect, at very least, a champagne breakfast and a shoulder rub from an attractive trolley steward. That at least is what the chancellor may well have expected when he famously threw a tantrum at being asked to pay for a first-class ticket upgrade last October. Why are prices going up so much? The answer is straightforward.
This government, like the Labour government before it, no longer believes in or wishes to pay for a publicly funded rail service run for the collective good. As such, it’s shifting the burden of financing the railways away from general taxation and on to the individual ticketholder. Before rail privatisation got under way, that burden was split around 50:50, but today two-thirds of the cost of the railways is shouldered by the people who buy the tickets. It’s the same approach that they’re taking with higher education: gradually removing public funding and making individuals pay more so that while the service doesn’t improve, it’s no longer the responsibility of the state. Education, healthcare, welfare and now transport: all things that were once considered part of our collective inheritance, all being sold off piece by piece to cut costs in the short term and change the nature of civil society in the long term into something harder, meaner, more desperate.
Train fares have risen by 50% in a decade, hitting the poorest hardest – and it’s precisely the poorest who have no other option but to take the train in to work. The fare rises mean that a London call-centre worker earning the minimum wage and living far out along the transport line, which is where you often need to live when you are earning the minimum wage, will have to work the equivalent of an extra hour a week just to be able to afford the journey to the office. That’s 52 extra hours a year, the equivalent of almost a week’s extra work. It all adds up, especially when wages are stagnating and the tax credits that made poverty pay bearable are being ripped away. While a low-waged office clerk can now expect to spend 25% of her income on a season ticket to London from an affordable commuter town, the same ticket will cost a well-paid executive 5% of her salary, although at a pinch, she could probably afford a taxi.
The meanest thing about fare hikes is that the millions of workers who rely on subway and overground trains to get to their jobs don’t have any other option. Although running a car is beginning to look like a cheaper option, that’s only mile for mile – factor in parking, congestion charges and the capital outlay involved in purchasing even the dodgiest, smelliest old banger and few wage labourers are going to be able to afford to switch. So every year the price goes up more than it should, and every year we are officially informed that all of this is going towards giving us a “world-class service”. If you’ve ever been on a German train, the notion that British rolling stock is “world class” may make you spit lukewarm carriage tea onto the shoulder of the commuter whose necessary parts are crammed against your kidneys – according to several studies we still have the most expensive railways in Europe. Not all of the extra money goes towards “improving the service”, either – the link between fare rises and investment in infrastructure is a deep and musty one, rather like the inside of a franchise-owner’s wallet. The more important question is which would you rather have: a train with scuffed seats that at least takes everyone to work on time, or a train with its own bar and shiny space-age doors that nobody apart from stockbrokers and their snotty kids can afford to get on? Your answer says a lot about your politics, unless you’re reading this on a packed commuter train at 9.30 in the morning, in which case you’re entitled to answer that you just want, at some point in your life, to sit down.
The history of modern industrialised labour is the history of the railways, and the history of the railways is the history of modern Britain, where they began. The London underground, the world’s first metropolitan transport system, opened 150 years ago, fundamentally changing the nature of work in large cities, making it possible for ordinary people to travel from the suburbs to the city centre and back in a day. It is still nearly impossible to run a functioning industrial economy in a small country without an affordable rail system, and London, where 70% of British train journeys begin or end, is suffering in particular, as workers struggle to afford basic travel and find themselves trapped where they live because they can’t afford to leave.
We are becoming a country in which we are all, in a practical as well as emotional manner, more distant from one another. The coming of the railways made Britain, and then the world, a much smaller, more accessible place; the pricing of all but the well-off out of train travel has made it larger again, unless you can afford the ticket.
For those who can, there’s good news: the cost of first-class train tickets is going down on many branches this year, which will be welcome by the more than a quarter of MPs who charged first-class travel to the taxpayer in the past 12 months. Hearing that we’re all in this together is scant comfort for the millions, in this increasingly unequal country, who are crammed sweating in standard class – or left standing on the platform in the cold.