Inevitably, passenger and railway advocacy groups criticised the fare rises that hit us yesterday. In the wake of this, the Chief Executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), Michael Roberts, went on BBC news and gave a very good interview in which he provided sensible responses to sensible questions about why the increases were occurring. I have to be honest, I was quite impressed. Here was a man who knew about how Britain’s railways were funded, the structure of the industry and the problems that it faced basically telling at as it as he saw it. Now, I am not saying that I agree with the increase in ticket prices, in fact I worry profusely about the effect they may have on rail usage generally. But in reality, what are the other options to raising fares when the government's subsidy for railways is about be massively cut?
Of course, there are always alternative options to such large fare rises. I am not an industry insider, nor am I someone who fully understands the ins and outs of the modern railway network. All I can really say is that I am a railway historian who has developed a slight grasp on the vagaries of the modern British railway industry. Therefore, I would not be able to give a fully informed opinion on how to reduce the fares or change the funding model through a re-adjustment of the structures of the industry, railway company management, cost structures or operating procedures. But then again neither does anyone else, including many critics of the price rises.
Every time that the fares go up Passenger Focus (PF), a body which are supposed to defend the rights of railway passengers, say the same things. Firstly, they inform us that British passengers already pay the highest fares in Europe. Secondly, they assume that the commuters will be dumb-struck, or, as they said this year, ‘baffled’ by the fare increases. Of course commuters aren’t baffled, they know greed when they see it. Thirdly, we are always told that some companies have put fares up above the average. Then, they do the traditional thing of supplying to news outlets a lovely table which details the highest percentage price increases on certain season tickets. While all these facts are true, it isn’t like we didn’t know them already. Realistically, PF are just repeating complaints heard on every platform around the country.
Furthermore, on the 31st December the Campaign for Better Transport (CFBT) went wild and launched a new campaign called ‘Fair Fares Now,’ which seeks to achieve ‘cheaper, simpler, fairer train fares.’ Ideally, their goal is to do this before the ticket pricing rules change in 2012, after which Train Operating Companies (TOC) will be able to put up regulated fares by the percentage of the Retail Price Index plus 3 per cent (it is now RPI+1%). However, is this really different to PF’s complaints? The answer has to be no. The CFBT are also saying what they have said before and what everyone knows; that high train fairs are not smart, not green, and definitely not fair.
With such tired old scripts and with only one issue on their agendas, is it surprising that these organisations have changed nothing? They do not make headway because they do not engage with the structure of the industry. The railway industry is a huge web of contracts, managers, technologies, structures, organisations, companies and, of course, financial transactions. For PF and the CFBT to only talk about the fares, when essentially pricing is one out of a raft of industry issues, is very short-sighted. Essentially, they are criticising an aspect of the rail industry that the TOCs and the Department for Transport know they are going to get criticised for and which for the last 13 years have acted on irrespective of outside input. What PF and CFBT should do is take a leaf out of the book of high-profile critics of the pre-World War One railway network, William Acworth and George Paish.
Both men were very vocal critics of the railways in their day and criticised not only the rates that they charged for their services, but also the way that the companies ran their businesses. For example, in his 1891 book The Railways and the Traders: A Sketch of the Railway Rates Question, Acworth had chapters entitled ‘Cost of Carriage,’ ‘Equal Mileage Rates,’ ‘What the Traffic Will Bear,’ ‘What the Traffic Will Not Bear,’ ‘Who Shall Fix the Rate?,’ ‘Some Extortionate Rates,’ ‘Competition and Combination,’ ‘Continental Rates,’ ‘American Rates,’ ‘Why English Rates are High,’ ‘The Traders Demands,’ and ‘The Board of Trade Provisional Orders.' Further, in 1902 Paish wrote a book called The British Railway Position, in which he criticised British railway management on matters of train loading, costing, operation and capacity.
What separated these men from the current critics of the railway network was that they had detailed knowledge of how the industry worked, how the companies operated and how much the railways cost to run. Armed with this information, they were able to make stinging criticisms of the railway companies and caused their senior managers and directors feel very uncomfortable indeed. But this was not their only success. Because of the knowledge they possessed Acworth and Paish began to influence government thinking. Subsequently, their insight led to them both being asked on different occasions to sit on Parliamentary committees investigating railway management and pricing.
Subsequently, their criticism was successful in helping changing the way that railway companies interacted with the public and shareholders. Between 1890 and 1914 Governments legislated to freeze the rates that were charged by railway companies, determine what operating statistics they collected and specified how their yearly accounts were presented. Indeed, some of these changes were the result of committees that Acworth and Paish sat on. While the merits and failures of these policies can be debated, Paish, Acworth, and others used their detailed knowledge of the industry help force the railway companies to bend to the will of the state and the people.
Thus, what we as passengers need is not for PF and the CFBT to complain about just the fares, as every passenger will already be doing that and historically the evidence suggests that it doesn't change anything. Their role should be to analyse and criticise the structure of the industry, the way that it is subsidised, and how the companies operate. Their role should be to provide a counter narrative to the one peddled by ATOC and the DfT that actually presents alternatives to current industry policies and structures. They should be trying to make the currently comfortable railway managers and transport ministers feel very uncomfortable in their offices by questioning how they have created a system that has so blatantly failed. Only then will they begin to be listened to, gain influence and be on the road to achieving their stated goals.