How traveling by rail has become a disgrace to our nation

I’m sat here in the misery of a First Great Western train carriage. We’re packed into a 35 year old train and I’ve got the armpit from a sweaty teenager in my face. It’s delayed, and everyone is clearly miserable. The cost for this misery: £51 for a one way trip, or £0.80 a mile.

When I first left university, I lived outside of London with my parents; I commuted into London every day and paid £9.80 for the pleasure. That’s approximately £0.17 per mile. It falls in line with what you’d expect: cheap, affordable rail travel. We’ve had a bit of inflation since then, and if you take that into account, you’d expect that journey to cost £13.50 or thereabouts today.

Well if you go on and try to buy a ticket, it will be £45. Pardon, you say? Yes, that’s 333% inflation. But that’s not the full picture of their profiteering. Passenger numbers have soared, 37% in that same period, if you believe this ATOC report. That means that for a given train, they are earning 457% more than they did 10 years ago – in real terms.

Ah, you might say, but they have been investing in the future, building out new shiny trains, wireless access and other amenities. I’m afraid the evidence suggests otherwise. First Great Western are still using the fleet of trains they inherited from British Rail in 1993, and the trains were built some time between 1977 and 1982. Most domestic flights now have wireless internet, but First Great Western operate a Bring Your Own Wireless policy, and stick you in a big faraday cage so you can’t get signal.

How does this make any sense?

Essentially it is an unregulated and anti-competitive market, which is all bad. The monopolised environment simply means that there is no incentive to improve. No incentive to provide a better customer service. No reason not to continue to push prices up.

And the stations?

I think that the stations are more offensive than anything else. I don’t know how many times I have been stood on a cold platform. You see, they used to have waiting rooms, but they realised that this was valuable real estate, so they sold them to minicab companies and rip-off coffee joints.

I was just stood for 20 minutes on a freezing platform with this exact problem. A WH Smith newsagent stands proudly where the waiting room used to be. But it’s OK – I can go and buy a packet of chips there for £0.90, 120% more than a supermarket. Who says they aren’t looking after their passengers?

My local station, Hampton, just retired the station worker that has been there since history began. He wasn’t a spring chicken, but he knew every cheap fare out there. To be fair, one of his replacements is pretty switched on, but the other can barely string a sentence together. It took me nearly 5 minutes to get my ticket today, with a growing line of passengers behind me.

Which brings me neatly to Revenue Protection

My favourite station is Kew Bridge. The ticket office burnt down some years back and for several years it was not actually possible to buy a ticket at any of the stations I went through from home to work. I’d be stopped, periodically, by revenue protection officers (it’s extortion, really). How, I would explain, would you like me to buy a ticket, when you can’t be bothered to have a ticket office at either station in my journey?

Andrew Gilligan wrote a good article on this a few years back. One operator made £32 million out of revenue protection, and financially incentivises its staff based on the amount of revenue they collect from unsuspecting passengers. I have one friend who was actually protected by police at Waterloo by one abusive revenue officer who would not let her buy a ticket, having travelled from the aforementioned Kew Bridge.

What can be done about it?

I really don’t know. Rail operators simply don’t care about customer service. They know that because they operate in a monopoly and most passengers don’t have a choice, they can afford to treat their customers like shit and they will keep buying. And passenger numbers keep rising as roads become more congested, so they keep putting their prices up.

For example, my regular ticket price just went up 6.5% last week, despite UK inflation being around 4%. And more to the point, salaries for most people aren’t increasing so the average person is spending more of their income, in real terms.

Perhaps we can lobby our MPs and our government. But I’m pretty certain they couldn’t care less. My local MP is Zac Goldsmith and I’m pretty certain he doesn’t give a shit. Zac – feel free to prove me wrong by commenting on this blog and tell me what you’re going to do about it.

In the meantime I will be thankful that I mostly travel for work purposes and my employer pays my expenses. Many others are not so fortunate.

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11 Responses to How traveling by rail has become a disgrace to our nation

  1. Simon Bone says:

    When you own a Lotus Espirit I imagine public transport becomes quite important.

  2. Don’t worry – the newly approved HS2 will fix all the rail system’s problems.

  3. Paul Cooper says:

    Ah the mysteries / miseries of traveling by train in the UK… I occasionally travel a route that is £5 cheaper if you buy the ticket from the station before the one you want to travel from… The ticket office were at a loss when I asked them why it was cheaper to travel an extra four miles.

    • John Appleby says:

      If only that made any sense. I’m sure it could be calculated with a computer. Or a calculator!

      • Robert Whittaker says:

        It’s because the ticket prices are calculated on the affluence of the where the stations are, supply and demand as well as the distance travelled.

        When I moved house, but my journey distance was the same and the number of travellers fell (I was now travelling away from london), the ticket price went up because I moved to a more affluent town.

  4. You British are so far behind the US yet again; our rail system has been a disgrace for decades. We have a few bastions of decent service within cities, but for intercity travel it is pretty awful.

    My father-in-law actually wrote a very nostalgic song about it (it’s actually pretty good but it is wholly nostalgic.

    • John Appleby says:

      Well that is generally true but the Acela line from Washington DC to Boston is pretty awesome, I’ve taken it a few times even if it did crash once with me onboard.

      But more to the point air transport is cheap and cheerful in the US. It is also not bad in the UK, but there aren’t that many locations and security means everything takes longer. Nice son.

  5. Robert Whittaker says:

    It’s even more galling when you compare us to European prices. I was shocked by the cheapness of fares in Copenhagen and Stockholm. Isn’t scandanavia meant to be really expensive?

  6. Emmanuel says:

    There are also monopolies in Europe. The problem in North America is that people have forgotten that the train could often be more efficient than buses, cars and planes…

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