FRESH from new year celebrations, rail users run slap-bang into reality with this year’s instalment of above-inflation fare increases.
Even worse than the basic fact of an average 2.3 per cent increase is the reality that fares rise by different percentages dependent on a bewildering array of criteria.
Rail companies across Europe have no difficulty aligning prices with distance travelled, but the bizarre privatisation model imposed on Britain’s railways allows companies to charge what the market can bear.
That means stitching up passengers who are unable to plan ahead and have no choice but to arrive at a station and take a train or leave it.
It also holds to ransom daily commuters into major urban areas, especially London, where there is no viable road access.
Arterial routes into our cities are clogged mornings and evenings by private car-owners seeking a preferable, if less safe and more environmentally harmful, alternative to standing in an overcrowded train carriage for about an hour in preparation for a day at work — and paying through the nose for the privilege.
Private train-operating companies make great play about making additional numbers of discounted advance-booking fares available, but this misses the point entirely.
These fares apply at off-peak times and are useless to people going to work and subject to inflexible attendance rotas.
To then face the awareness that, as Action for Rail has revealed, commuters working in London and some other areas, pay as much as 14 per cent of their monthly income on rail fares alone.
It beggars belief that people in Paris or Rome would calmly accept paying six times as much as they do currently just to get to work.
But until recently the attitude in Britain was that, although it was disgusting, there was nothing to do because higher fares were necessary to revamp the long-neglected railways, passengers rather than taxation had to finance modernisation and a return to public ownership was out of the question because no-one supported it.
Well, no-one apart from over two-thirds of the electorate, all transport unions and a host of rail experts who had examined the issue and saw the justice of the case.
Despite this, the collective wisdom of the major parliamentary parties — Tories, New Labour, Liberal Democrats and nationalists — was that nationalisation was old hat and that private-sector expertise, overseen by regulation, would secure the public interest.
This neoliberal orthodoxy was always tosh, but the Action for Rail study provides new data confirming that verdict. Fortunately, there have been two major political changes in the past year.
Labour re-elected a leader who fought to win his party to public ownership of rail and the electorate voted to quit the European Union, quashing any commitment to the EU fourth railway package that lays down compulsory contract tendering and shifts powers from national networks to the European Railway Agency.
If the party, including its MPs, united behind Jeremy Corbyn and worked together to project key policies that emphasise the differences between Labour and the neoliberal dross offered by its opponents, progress could be made. But, if Labour takes its lead from the Fabian Society, which tells it to tailor its policies to the pro-market attitudes of the Liberal Democrats, Scottish nationalists and other “centre-left” parties, it will be doomed to deserved political irrelevance.
Labour has gained hundreds of thousands of members by embracing radical change.
Beating a shameful retreat back towards private-is-best liberalism could mean waving them goodbye.