This week it was announced that rail fares will be leaping up 3.5% in 2019. That might not sound like much, but take a moment to think what it really means.
A monthly season ticket from Canterbury to London on the High Speed will increase from £690 to £715. After income tax, a jump of £25 means a basic rate taxpayer needs to earn an extra £35 a month in order to break even after the hike.
The average annual salary in London according to payscale.com is less than £35,000. A commuter on this paygrade takes home the same income after tax as somebody living and working in Canterbury earning £23,000.
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Looking for better money in London? Your new job needs to pay at least £12,000 more or it’s just not worth it.
So why do we pay?
The rail companies have Canterbury commuters tied to the tracks. The same job opportunities don’t exist here in Kent as they do in London. If you want a better career, commuting may be the only option.
It’s possible to make your commute cheaper. You can save thousands per year if you don’t take the High Speed. Although if your door-to-door commute already takes 90 minutes, this is likely to put a serious dent in your work-life balance.
Rail chiefs argue that it’s hard to make a profit and that 98p of every pound spent on fares goes back into the railways. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling upset unions this week by blaming fare hikes on inflation-busting pay rises for rail workers. A TUC spokesman warned his comments could be a ‘recipe for years of industrial action’.
While rail operators, the unions, and the government bicker and pass the buck, people are getting understandably miffed as they look across the channel and see European commuters paying half what we do.
In other countries, the trains are often subsidised by the government, but putting money back into commuters’ pockets means it isn’t going to the NHS or paying down the national deficit. Not an easy sell in times of austerity.
What’s a hard-working commuter to do? Swallow the bitter pill without uttering a word of complaint? Absolutely not. Several things could be done to improve the situation.
There is a limit to the number of trains that can run at the same time because large sections of the line only have one track going in each direction. Faster services can only overtake slower ones in certain places.
Investing in a bit of extra track would make space for more trains, carrying more passengers. The extra income from ticket sales could be used to offset fare hikes.
Home working is becoming increasingly common. Friends and colleagues in Canary Wharf tell me it’s normal to work two days from home every week. But where are the part-time season tickets?
The fat controller argues that his hands are bound by legislation drawn up in the days before the internet.
If this is the case, then some prompt changes to the rules would allow commuters who only travel three or four days a week to reduce their travel costs by up to 40%. Even if the reduction only turned out to be 30%, I doubt anyone would complain too much.
The plight of commuters might be a long way down the government’s list of priorities, but we don’t deserve to be forgotten.
Canterbury residents have come to rely on the High Speed service and it isn’t acceptable that a season costs more than a typical mortgage.
It’s time for action. Why not start by emailing your local councillor and see if they will lobby the authorities on your behalf. After all, there’s an election next year…