Single to London? That’ll Be an Arm and a Leg, Please!

Here we go again.

On Friday 22 April, Andy Burnham  – mayor of Greater Manchester, sometime future leader of the Labour Party, scourge of the north/south divide  – tweeted details of how much it would cost to travel from his fine conurbation to selected destinations around the world and back. You could get a return ticket from Manchester to India for £343; to Jamaica for £354; and so on.

And then, the inevitable punchline: “London (rail) £369”. The message was clear: British rail fares are out of control.

Avanti West Coast Pendolino on the West Coast Main Line between Manchester and London
Avanti West Coast Pendolino on the West Coast Main Line between Manchester and London

You can probably guess how that played out. There was sympathetic press coverage, from both expected (the Manchester Evening News) and unexpected (GB News?) corners. There were people trying to replicate Burnham’s figures, with at least some degree of cynicism about whether something here might have been fudged. And, inevitably, there were a lot of “well actually” defences of the current system: explanations about how Britain’s rail operators cleverly use variable pricing to manage demand, and so, if you think about it, it’s actually all just a little bit more complicated than the mayor suggests, actually.

Full disclosure: I’ve sometimes engaged in that myself, both because it’s true, and also frankly because of my personality. The more I think about it, though, the more I think Burnham might have a point. There are very good reasons fares are so high. That’s not the same as saying they’re justifiable.

The backdrop to all this – the trigger for Andy Burnham’s rage – was the “Great British Rail Sale”, an “unprecedented” attempt to lure passengers back to the network after covid by slashing the price of over a million journeys until 27 May. Transport secretary Grant Shapps has pitched it as his attempt to help tackle the cost of living crisis, but it’s gone down about as well as a seat next to the loos on a Pendolino on a hot day.

For one thing, the sale comes only a few weeks after the latest rise in fares, which saw prices rise by up to 3.8%. For another, services across the network are being cut under pressure from the Treasury. As a result, the decision to offer a few cut-price fares doesn’t feel massively coherent. More than that, the sale applies not to commuter services, but to intercity trains at quiet times: in other words, the special offer applies only to those trains where the demand for tickets, and thus the benefit of savings, is least.

In that, though, it is at least consistent with an entire generation of ticketing policy, in which, as on airlines, the price of a ticket has tended to correlate with the number of people likely to want it. This policy, a natural extension of making off-peak tickets cheaper, is why last-minute tickets cost more than those booked in advance – there are fewer places left on the train, and someone who absolutely has to go tomorrow will pay more for them than someone who can go next week instead. It’s also why so many of the comparisons between train fares in Europe, where prices tend to be flatter, and those in Britain are so often misleading: the more complicated British fare system means it’s easy to accidentally compare the most expensive tickets here with the least expensive ones elsewhere, or to miss cheaper options altogether. The latter point may in fact be a feature, rather than a bug.

This system has, from one perspective, worked brilliantly. It’s clearly not deterred passengers – witness the number of the lack of empty seats on intercity trains, or the fact that, before the pandemic hit, journey numbers were at an all time high.

What’s more, despite the increasingly silly price of certain tickets, it’s hard to find evidence of widespread price gouging either. This is admittedly going back a bit, but in 2013, the fact checking website Full Fact found that train operating companies earned an average margin of just 3.4%.

And yet, it’s hard to look at that £369 fare from Manchester to London and conclude it’s reasonable. (It’s actually £369.40: Burnham was understating the problem, by 40p.) Okay, you can get cheaper fares if you book in advance. But what if you don’t get notice? What if there’s a family emergency? Or a last-minute work event? Not everyone who needs to travel at the last minute has an expense account to pay for it. What’s more, going by train should be cheaper than flying or driving, and if it isn’t, that’s a problem. Given the climate crisis, it’s a problem for all of us.

The UK rail network uses train fares as a vital tool to manage demand. UK train fares are much, much too high. These are not mutually contradictory statements.

What is to be done? Well this is where, like a vicar suddenly turning his homily on the week’s news inexorably towards the subject of Jesus, I can make my real point. If fares are so high because they’re used to manage demand, but trains remain crowded all the same, then the conclusion is obvious: we need to run more trains. The only problem is, the existing network is full: often, there literally isn’t the space for them.

So what we need is a bigger network. A whole new line, designed specifically to separate fast trains from local ones, magically creating more paths on routes far away from the new tracks it consists of.

In other words, the row about high train fares makes the case for HS2.

The Treasury alas seems deaf to this message. We can but hope a few more years of having to fund rail operators to stop the network breaking might win them over.

About Jonn Elledge

Jonn Elledge is a journalist and editor who specialises in transport and local government. Former assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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