Earlier this month the rail companies announced a long-overdue review of national rail fares. Some would argue like a lot of their trains, it’s very late.
Operators argue that the industry is bound in red tape. They say legislation insisting that a customer can buy a through fare to any destination in the UK means a journey beginning at peak time must be charged at peak rate for the entire distance – even if it involves several changes, multiple rail operators, and doesn’t get in until many hours after peak time ends.
They say that rules dictate commuters must be offered season tickets lasting a week, a month, and a year – so it’s too difficult to offer part-time alternatives for people who only travel three days a week.
You may sense a level of scepticism in my tone here. That’s because the Fat Controller doesn’t run a not-for-profit, and a lot of this hand-wringing may disguise an excuse to cash in.
On the flip side, there are statutory elements of the railway that are bound to make a loss. Think of all the rural village stations that wouldn’t exist without subsidy, although is it fair that commuters carry the costs…?
So how did this all happen? Historically, the evolution of our rail network has been a mess. Once a nationalised industry, now privatised, the rail companies have been victim to constant changes in legislation from successive governments. This certainly hasn’t helped.
The current rules dictating fares predate the internet. They were drawn up in an age when train tickets all came from the train station and working from home was a euphemism for unemployment so there was very little demand for anything more flexible.
Now the message from passengers is clear: only a third of those surveyed are very confident they got the best price for their last rail ticket. I’m one of the two-thirds who suspect they may not have done.
But it’s worth it isn’t it? Living in Canterbury, I can see the difference the HS1 has made to Kent.
Being 55 minutes away from St Pancras means a whole sector of employment is open to me that previously would have been out of reach. Or is it?
My grandfather commuted to London from Whitstable for 40 years. He tells me the journey used to take no more than an hour.
As a child growing up in Canterbury, I remember the train from Canterbury East to Victoria took an hour and a quarter. The same journey now takes half an hour longer.
When the HS1 first pulled away from the platform in 2007 an annual season cost half what it does today. Even then it was a jump considering the journey time only seems to have been reduced by a few short minutes.
Canterbury commuters pay one of the highest prices per mile anywhere in the world for rail travel. The cost for a monthly season ticket is easily as much as one person’s rent.
I accept the role of market forces, but question why a service that people come to rely on is allowed to reach such excessive levels compared to average salaries and the cost of living.
Down the road, Whitstable is seeing services cut even further. For those who aren’t in a position to pay for the cost of the high-speed service, the future looks pretty bleak. Services are becoming less frequent and journey times increased. The impact on family time and quality of life may be considerable.
Despite the drawbacks, it’s unarguable that more and more commuters are shunting out of London and embracing life living outside the capital – and the HS1 has played an important part in that. And whereas Ashford risks becoming something of a dormitory town, Canterbury is a vibrant and happening city with nightlife and culture galore.
Nobody can deny the HS1 has had a huge impact on the south east. The opportunity to return to how things were has long past. That train has left the station. But this consultation is an opportunity to voice a few concerns.
Have your say between June and September or tell us what you think in the comments below.
Alex Lister lives in Canterbury with his wife and children. He is a writer, political campaigner, digital communications professional and hospital governor. Alex is the Managing Director of the Canterbury Journal.