Fare play at work on Britain's railway network
Britain's rail and tram network has been making headlines this winter for a multitude of reasons, and not all of them performance related. First there was the abusive tram lady of 'My tram experience' infamy's racist tirade against a carriage full of ethnic minorities (her subsequent denigration throughout society should serve as a reminder that the country's moral compass still points in the right direction).
Then came the heroic actions of 'Big Man' Alan Pollock, 34, who manhandled a 19-year old passenger off a Edinburgh-Perth train for refusing to pay his fare. His actions have been met with almost universal applause across the nation – a nation fed up with disrespectful youth, on the one hand, but perhaps also a nation pushed to breaking point by the UK's stuttering rail infrastructure.
Nobody likes delays, especially when a journey is being held up by an ungrateful passenger who refuses to bend to the rules that everybody else has to. But are the rules being imposed on British rail users fair and just? A recent announcement by the Association of Train Operation Companies (Atoc) that rail fares are set to rise in January by 5.9 per cent is hardly likely to lift the gloom that's been hovering over the industry like the wrong types of leaves strewn across a rusty old track.
The fare increase, which is higher than the 5.2 per cent Retail Price Index (RPI) measure of inflation, has been justified by Atoc as necessary to "continue cutting costs as a way to help limit future fare rises and offer better value for money for taxpayers over the long term."
"Money raised through fares helps pay for new trains, faster services and better stations," said Atoc's Chief Executive Michael Roberts.
"The longstanding government approach to sustaining rail investment is to cut the contribution from taxpayers and increase the share paid for by passengers."
However, opposition to this announcement has been swift and vocal, particularly from Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle.
"Ministers have shown how completely out of touch they are with the rising costs of commuting by failing to stick to the tough rules Labour established in government to prevent train companies from increasing some ticket prices by more than the fare cap," she said.
"It's clear that many commuters are facing a fares fiddle thanks to the government's decision to allow train companies to average out the revised fare cap across a range of tickets, meaning many tickets will rise by a shocking nine per cent in the new year."
Highest fares in Europe
British rail passengers currently pay the highest average rail fares in Europe, with former Transport Secretary Philip Hammond saying in September that rail travel in the UK had become so expensive that it was now a 'rich man's toy'.
Sophie Allan, of the Campaign for Better Transport, has described the current fare hike as 'eye watering', adding: "We still have the highest fares in Europe, and they will be around 24 per cent higher by the next election.
"With some of the most expensive train fares in the world, we are at a competitive disadvantage at a time when the need for economic activity and growth is urgent."
The situation could have been worse had the Chancellor, George Osborne, not reduced the initial planned fare rise by two per cent. Regulated fares – which include season tickets – had been in line for an eight per cent increase, but Osborne felt that this rise (three per cent above RPI) was 'too much', and so limited the rise to RPI plus one percent.
Regulated fares are set to rise by an average of six per cent, so some will come down, but others will rise by more than six per cent.
Higher fares, better value?
But are rail users in the UK getting value for money? A report by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), suggests not.
Between the period of July 24 and October 15 2011, the ORR looked at the performance of Network Rail (NR) and concluded that the rail network had become less resilient to disruptions, with delays to services deemed 'unacceptable' in relation to official performance pledges.
The ORR has warned that any continued deterioration of performance could result in disciplinary action being taken against NR.
During the period in question, the ORR noted that punctuality in the long-distance sector averaged 87 per cent, which is well short of the required 90.9 per cent for train services for 2011/12.
The ORR reported that 13,783 trains on 125,975 long-distance routes were more than ten minutes late, adding: "this shows that the network has become less resilient to disruptions", and that freight delays were 'much worse than the target'.
However, the ORR did report that NR and the rail industry had prepared well for the potential onset of adverse winter weather, and added that planned engineering works over the festive period were, ahem, on track.
"It is disappointing to see that train service performance and punctuality continued to deteriorate in the July to October period," said ORR's Director of Railway Planning and Performance, Michael Lee. "While much of the network still runs well, the poor performance in some places is not acceptable; passengers rightly expect every effort to be taken to ensure that their train arrives on time."
In response to the ORR Report, Robin Gisby, Network Operations Managing Director for NR, said: "Over the last few years the industry has driven up performance levels to among the best in Europe, with over 90 per cent of trains arriving on time. Volumes are high and growing, and where the industry has focused its efforts there have been improvements.
"Yet, we acknowledge that in many parts of the country passenger and freight performance does not meet the standards that our customers now rightly demand. Working with our industry partners, we are committed to making further improvements."
Despite this positive note, British eyes are still looking enviously across to the mainland at Germany, where chief rail operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) has posted a record operation profit for 2011 of €2.75 billion. Documents seen by Reuters show that DB earned €2.3 billion before tax in 2011, with a turnover of €38.4 billion, an increase on last year's previous record of €34.4 billion. It is anticipated that turnover will exceed €40 billion in 2012.
With the British Government awarding a £1.4 billion rolling stock contract to Germany's Siemens rather than Bombardier – the UK's last remaining train factory – there's a widespread feeling among rail users in the UK that the Government's priorities on rail travel are skewed, with passengers increasingly priced out, frustrated, crammed in, delayed and downtrodden.
It is going to take one hell of a PR exercise to alter this view, and viral videos of Brits behaving badly on the country's transport network only add to the growing sense of doom and gloom across the nation's spluttering rail infrastructure.
The British gave the world the train, but if they're not careful, they could be in danger of being left at the station as the rest of Europe rolls onwards towards the horizon...