The Maily Telegraph was spouting that well-worn and highly contentious assertion again this week, as it asserted “Rail fare hike: Britain vs rest of Europe ... As yet more rail fare hikes make Britain the most expensive place to travel by train, we compare the UK's commutes with some journeys across Europe”. If you’re going to make credible comparisons, don’t start with a misleading assumption.
First Great Western trains at Reading
Trying to tap into the anger of commuters who may – note “may” – have to stump up another 5% or more for their season tickets next year, the Tel then compares walk-up fares for London to Bristol with a range of journeys in mainland Europe, without telling how the fares were obtained or calculated. Moreover, all except the example of Poland are not journeys to or from the country’s capital city.
Readers are also invited to see how jolly expensive an all zones peak one-day Travelcard is in London, while at the same time not reminding them that the last six years’ fare increases have been handed down courtesy of the Mayor for whom the paper so shamelessly campaigned. But what the Tel, and all too many other media outlets do not tell, is that there is more to the story.
Because, as The Man In Seat 61 pointed out recently, after demonstrating that booking ahead – even just one day ahead – actually made the UK cheaper than comparative mainland European journeys, “So the next time someone says (or you read) ‘Britain has the highest rail fares in Europe’, you'll know this is only 15% of the story”. And there is a good reason for the highest fares being pitched as they are.
As Christian Wolmar has noted, this is very much a political decision: to get those travelling by train to pay more of the cost. This has moved from around a third a decade ago to nearer two-thirds today. After all, most of the population does not travel by train, yet all of that population chips in. Commuters and business travellers pay most as they are a relatively inelastic market segment.
But back at the Tel, this cuts no ice with Allister Heath, who proclaims “To put the railways back on track we must first rip out the waste ... More competition, not further subsidies, is the key to reforming this antiquated industry”. Yet where to start? “Hardly anyone understands its costs, the details of its hybrid, semi-renationalised structure or who is really in charge and thus responsible”.
Actually, they do, but before bothering to find out, Heath declares that the solution “is to inject greater competition into the industry, forcing it to address its bloated cost base”. A cost base which he earlier said nobody understood. But this is what you get by making misleading assumptions, as the Tel has done. Ultimately, who pays how much towards the cost of rail travel is a political decision.
And the debate is not served by ideological posturing. Hello Allister Heath.