For over 10 years, on and off, I’ve commuted to London to work. It’s become a lifestyle, if not one of choice. While the franchise to run the service in and out of Liverpool Street has changed hands many times in that period, little else has really changed except one thing – the cost.
I’ve done a few diverse commutes in my time – Harwich to London, Colchester to Ipswich, Colchester to Chelmsford, Colchester to London – and, I’ll be honest, I can’t really remember the price of a season ticket when I first started commuting to London back in 2001, but I know that it was considerably less than the £527.30 a month I now pay simply to go to work.
Paying for my monthly season ticket is the single biggest cost in my household budget. And I am not alone. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Colchester commute to Chelmsford, London and beyond to go to work. For many it’s a necessity – there is no choice in the matter and therefore, they have no choice but to pay the ever increasing rail fares.
Announcing a £2.2bn infrastructure investment programme this week, Network Rail said the number of people commuting to London is set to rise by 49 per cent in the next 20 years. Many of my fellow commuters feel that the current rail infrastructure cannot meet today’s demands, let alone these forecast increases.
But taxpayer investment will only go so far, which why it is important that private train companies put more of their profits into infrastructure. With delays and cancellations, tired and grubby rolling stock, many commuters struggle to see what their £527.30 a month gets them.
It is an indisputable fact that the rise in fares is a direct result of the government’s decision not to cap the annual increase. Instead, the coalition has given private train companies the right to turn the cap on fare rises into an average. Imposing the cap would be at the expense of private train company profits, not the taxpayer. A rail system that allows private train companies to maximise their profits at the expense of passengers, in a system that already costs taxpayers £3.5bn every year, is a railway that puts the wrong people first.
While the taxpayer continues to fund Network Rail and the infrastructure of Britain’s railways, private train companies continue to reap the profits from their over inflated fare prices, and commuters, like those of us travelling from Colchester, are funding both.
In September 2011, Labour MP Gareth Thomas wrote an interesting piece on how it was crucial for Labour to win back the commuter belt – especially in the south and east.
This is still true, especially with the government’s failure to stand up to the train companies and be on the side of the passenger. Labour has already shown its determination to be on the side of the rail users, with debates in parliament and campaigns in commuter belt constituency across the country.
Britain’s rail industry should be persuading people off the roads with train services that are quicker, cheaper and more reliable than travelling by road by adopting the ‘Tesco’ sales model of ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’.
Changing the current franchise regime to a system of not-for-private profit is just one option. This alone can ensure that taxpayers do not bear the burden of infrastructure investment. But there are many others, including simplifying the fares structure.
Yet far from simplifying it, the government is looking to make rail travel more complex. Its rail ticketing review, which will report later this year, is expected to call for the introduction of a new ‘super peak’ fare. These tickets will be more expensive and not subject to any cap. The move would also see existing season tickets no longer valid on every train.
Labour is beginning to set out its own alternative plans for the rail industry, including looking at franchise models and ticketing arrangements.
By campaigning in the commuter-belt and winning the commuter vote, Labour can change the direction of travel in the rail industry that delivers a better deal for taxpayers and fare-payers.
Jordan Newell is chair of Colchester Labour party. He tweets @JordanNewell
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