12th September 2012

Wherever you may be: stay away from the trains

The embarrassment of Britain’s failing railways

 Welcome to Manchester young Freshers! Hopefully you’ve been settling in well and enjoying all the things this great city has to offer. There’s so much to see and do both in and around Manchester, but if I could offer just one piece of advice it would be this: stay the hell away from the trains. Unlike a lot of areas, the buses are actually pretty good in Manchester, and there’s even a tram if you like that sort of thing. But in common with every other part of the country, the trains are a gigantic, miserable joke that was never particularly funny. Unless of course you are Timothy O’Toole. Or Richard Branson (until very recently at least).

For those of you who are returning readers, you may remember my position on the train operating companies from last year. To sum up: I hate them. I loathe them with the kind of blind, searing rage which is normally reserved for war criminals and people who talk in cinemas. I hate them because they represent every bad face of capitalism; I hate them because they are a public service run in the interests of a handful of excessively wealthy owners, because they operate as a cartel running the most expensive, yet least reliable, train services in the whole of Europe. Although I suppose it is really the constant stream of politicians who have bought into the idea that train lines can be run efficiently and cost effectively by private companies ever since John Major decided cutting up the network and giving it to his mates was a great way forward for the country.

Britain’s trains are an issue the majority of people do not spend much time thinking about, and probably rightly so. It just so happens that I spend a much greater portion of my life sitting on trains than I would like and, as something of a natural anorak, I cannot help but spend an even greater portion of my life thinking about those trains. It is undeniably ludicrous that we spend more money on train fares than any other people in Europe, and yet our train services consistently rank at the bottom of tables for punctuality, comfort, overcrowding, and reliability.

The lunatic response to this problem has been on-going ever since initial privatisation: that is, year-on-year above inflation price increases. That is to say that, in real terms, the cost of a train ticket between the same two places has become more expensive every single year since 1990. Originally train companies were allowed to increase fares by RPI+1 every year – that is the higher measure of inflation, plus an extra 1%. To anyone who might stop and think about this, it is obviously an unsustainable model if the idea is to increase the price of a service above the level of wage increases every single year.

Eventually everybody will be completely priced off the railways. Yet to combat this the latest solution has been to … allow train companies to raise prices by RPI+3 as of next year! This means that in January, many tickets will increase in price by as much as 6.2%, although you will of course still get the same miserable staff, the same late trains, and the same chronic lack of seating that everyone has come to expect of the once great British railways.

If you are ever tempted to visit somewhere around the region, say Blackburn or Bolton, you may well have the pleasure of travelling on a Northern train. Where the other train companies are a joke, Northern, along with Arriva incidentally, have built a company on completely taking the piss. After paying a million pounds for your ticket, you will be herded onto a (delayed) station wagon on wheels straight out of the late 1800s. The train will screech along at half a mile an hour until you finally break down, the constant festering smell of generations of broken dreams drives you to leap out the window, or arrive at your destination. At which point, some of these wonder machines even require you to stand at the doors and wait for the driver to come along and open them with his special alan key. Because they did not have automatic doors when these trains were built, at the height of the Industrial Revolution.

Ben Green

Ben Green

Former Comment editor (2011-2012).

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