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Cancellations, delays, chaos – yet rail fares keep on rising

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With rail fare rises outstripping wages yet again, the time has come to return our railways to public ownership
Rail fare

It’s the same old story for the UK’s long-suffering rail passengers.

Despite a year of chaos on our railways – from disastrous new timetables to yet another failure on the East Coast Mainline – rail fare rises are set to outstrip wages again this year.

According to analysis we’re releasing today, regulated fares will rise by 3.2% when new prices come into effect on 2 January 2019.

That means some season tickets will go up by more than £150 a year, even though wages are only rising by a disappointing 2.7%.

This is another insult for hard-pressed commuters. After a year of delays, cancellations and breakdowns the last thing they deserve is another wage-busting fare hike.

Our railways badly need investment, but private train companies are squandering funds on shareholder dividends.

That’s why we’re calling for services to be brought back under public ownership, which would free up money for much-needed upgrades and lower ticket prices.

And it would allow Britain’s railways to be better co-ordinated and staffed.

A broken system

If you’re a season ticket holder, prepare to fork out significantly more next year.

For example, an annual season ticket from Brighton to London is set to rise by just under £140, even this route has suffered months of delays and cancellations due to the Govia Thameslink timetabling crisis.

Over the last decade wages have grown at half the rate that train fares have, yet the latest reports to Companies House shows that private train companies paid out £165 million in dividends last year.

And let’s not forget that the taxpayer is handing over billions in direct and indirect subsidies every year – money that protects private sector profits for operators and stops them from walking away.

So taxpayers are propping up the government's privatisation dogma while commuters keep paying through the nose for a service that is getting worse despite the best efforts of staff.

We can’t go on like this – our railways must be brought back under public ownership as soon as possible.

Public ownership now

For years we’ve highlighted scandalously high rail fares and failing services from privatised rail.

But how would a publicly owned rail industry actually improve matters?

Under a publicly owned body, much of the recent rail chaos could have been mitigated or avoided entirely.

Rather than a fragmented system with multiple competing interests, we could have public ownership where all sections of the industry work together and the priority is service not profit.

This could have ensured the largest timetable change in living memory was proceeded by training enough new drivers so that all the new routes were covered.

At present, most TOCs rely on a skeleton staff.

There’s precious little slack in the system as it is, never mind the need to cover a whole fleet of new routes.

New timetables were meant to provide benefits across the system, but individual TOCs need to train drivers to cover them.

The current franchising system discourages hiring more than the minimum level of staff to keep costs down.

So, there was no one available to cover the gaps when drivers had to be taken out of rotation to learn a new route.

Failed franchises

Virgin’s tenure with the East Coast franchise has proven so disastrous that it has once again been taken in to public ownership.

After a scandalous bailout that will cost the taxpayer billions of pounds, this was the only option left to the Department for Transport.

But the last time the line was in public ownership it proved popular and efficient, winning 60 industry awards and returning billions of pounds to the exchequer.

Network Rail

While disruption this year has been exceptional, what about the rest of the time?

Well, there’s good evidence that everyday maintenance is more expensive on a privatised railway.

Network Rail achieved savings of £400m after bringing maintenance back in house in 2003.

Now the government are widely suspected of planning to break up network rail, creating a string of regional Railtracks.

This would add more cost to the railways and fuel fears of a return to the culture of profit before safety standards that led to the Hatfield and Potter's Bar train disasters under Railtrack.

A better future

In our Rebuilding Rail report we estimated that bringing rail back into public ownership could save £1.2bn.

Now that Network Rail’s debts are back on the public books that figure would be closer to £1bn, as the costs of financing debt are lower for the public sector.

After a year of unprecedented rail failures, we’re all are being fleeced for another year running.

Either directly through sky-high fares and government subsidies to the TOCs, or indirectly though the loss of productivity that an efficient, cost-effective, publicly-run rail industry could provide.

How much longer do ministers need before they get the message? We need pubic ownership now.