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Comment: Rail operators cannot lose as commuters continue to suffer
Anyone who has had the misfortune to use London Midland to commute into the capital will have had cause to consider the failings of the ‘state vs private’ economic conundrum.
Since the Great Depression, when laissez faire capitalism fell rapidly out of fashion, our political discourse has essentially been about how much state intervention we want with our free markets.
In Britain this has descended into a Goldilocks-style debate with each of the main parties insisting their particular balance is just right.
There is one area where – clearly – this balancing act has comprehensively failed, and that is the railways.
After the ping-ponging between nationalisation and then part privatisation over the last 70 years, we have been left with the worst of all worlds: a series of flabby, rapacious monopolies.
I received a keen insight into the miseries of being a commuter under the jackboot to one such monopoly travelling into London to cover a high court trial this week.
As I ambled up to Kings Langley station on Monday I braced myself for the fiscal gouging I half expected with getting a travelcard into London.
But the £23-a-day cost even surpassed my already wary expectation. Admittedly, that was buying a ticket on a daily ad hoc basis.
But looking at London Midland’s season ticket prices, regular commuters also face punishing costs.
The cheapest monthly season ticket from Kings Langley to Euston generated by the London Midland website was £286 and the cheapest annual season ticket £2,980.
So if you are on a salary of £30,000 a year, which is more than the national average, that’s roughly 10 per cent of your annual wage. And that’s just to get into Euston.
If you are one of that small minority of commuters financially reckless enough to work somewhere in the capital other than Euston, then Transport for London is waiting with its own exorbitant monopolised prices.
The ordeal of commuting via London Midland would be slightly less incensing if you were getting a halfway decent service for its premium prices.
But commuters are packed cheek-by-jowl into cramped trains, which are often delayed or cancelled.
Commuters are trapped. There is no competition to turn to and the rail companies can continue to increase fares year-on-year without any incentive to improve their product.
This farce has been enabled by the political establishment, which has overseen ticket price hike after ticket price hike over the past decade with bovine passivity.
There are some signs the understandable anger of commuters is beginning to register in Westminster.
Last year, the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced that the regulated rail fare price cap of the retail price index inflation rate plus 1 per cent was being changed to just the RPI rate.
Unfortunately for George, that horse bolted long ago. Fares are already grossly inflated and eating up large chunks of commuters’ disposable income, something that cannot be helping the economic recovery.
The problem is this supposedly privatised rail system is not a free market. The only threat to rail companies’ business is if the Government does not renew their franchises, which happens rarely.
The result is commuters have about as much choice over their train services as zoo animals have over their diet.
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