The Times, Jan 18 Rail users should pay rail costs
There are many rewards in living in North Yorkshire. Aftertwenty-three years living close to London it was good to return,two years ago, to a bit of space and a lot of beauty.There are some disadvantages, the first of which there is – more orless – no public transport or at least nothing, which would berecognisable as public transport in London or the South East. Allthose who live there –as I did for twenty-three years - and whoroutinely moan about train and bus services should take a breakup here. They would, I promise, realise how well off they were.It wasn’t always like this. The northeast gave birth to passengerrailways not only in Britain but also the world. In 1825 LocomotionNumber 1 travelled from Darlington to Stockton, being greeted onarrival in Teesside by a crowd of 40,000. It’s been all downhillsince then and rail coverage throughout the region is now poor.No one here very much complains, and nor do I, until I’m asked tosubsidise those, mainly in the southeast, who have a first class railsystem.London commuter outrage over the fare increases last week wasadmirably orchestrated. We all heard of the impossible burdenthey would impose on passengers despite the average increasebeing just one per cent above inflation.The uncomfortable truth is that fares should have increased rathermore, quite simply because the costs of rail travel should be bornemore by those who enjoy the privilege. So, before the commutingand political mafia began their howls of outrage last summer, theGovernment plan was for fares to increase by three per cent aboveinflation this year and again in 2014 and 2015.Norman Baker, the Minister responsible for railways and with acareful eye on his own constituency in Lewes, was always likely tobow to commuter pressure to change that. Indeed, somewhatoutrageously for a Minister who is supposed to take adispassionate view of such things, his constituency website claimsthe scrapping of the 3% rise as “a victory for local MP NormanBaker who has fought tirelessly to keep rail fares down.” Theproblem is that he has, simultaneously, fought tirelessly to keep
the taxpayer subsidy up. It is now just under £4billion, some threetimes higher, in real terms than the subsidy in 2001-02.The U turn bought Mr Baker little favour with some coalitioncolleagues. Days after the announcement of the smaller fare rise,Michael Fallon, Minister for Business, but more significantly, MPfor Sevenoaks, promptly presented a petition to Parliament callingon Southeastern Rail to cancel any increase in fares above inflation.So the £4b subsidy continues. That’s about one tenth of the moneywe’ll spend on schools this year. Much of that subsidy is to allowinvestment in the rail network and, significantly, the completion ofThameslink and Crossrail. That doesn’t make anyone up here feelany better.I use trains a lot, although to catch one I have to drive almost fiftymiles to York. There is a station here in Whitby which has thegrand total of just four services a day to Middlesbrough.Commuting to work from here, as many young people would liketo do, is impossible.Whitby has about the same population as Mr Baker’s constituency.But just 133,000 people entered and exited the station here lastyear compared with 2.7million people in Lewes. Despite beinglittle more than a tenth the size of Middlesbrough, the largest townin this region, twice as many people used the station at Lewes asused Middlesbrough’s. And little wonder: not just in Lewes, buteverywhere in the southeast, the railservice has improvedmarkedly in recent years with new and more carriages and morefrequent services. Some lines, such as that between London and StAlbans and Bedford now run for 24 hours a day. I’m genuinelypleased for people in the southeast who can take advantage ofthat. I just think they should pay for it.