Monday, November 24, 2008

Train rip-off hikes and the watchdog with no gnashers

Where's the big debate about yet more ridiculous train fare hikes? Where are the tabloids? Where's the goading? Why is John Sargent more important?

Simply, shameless. The day train fares go up again, Britain's papers marinate the news in a sea of I'm A Celebrity Out of Here bulletins and debates about Strictly Come Dancing. If an alien landed on UK soil today, aside from granting Richard Littlejohn and Peter Hitchens apoplexy (you can't get more of an immigrant than an alien), he'd think that the dancing moves of one John Sargent matter more than public services in the land of hope and bovvered. And yet the rail increases are supposed to hit people directly. It means less pints. It means more debt.

Still the fact that almost all train operators are introducing inflation-busting fares in 2009 (like they did in 2008, 2007, 2006, and keep counting all the way down to the final days of British Rail) looks like a side issue. Every year, the same story.

I ran a search online. I googled 'rain fares increase above inflation'. There were thousands of entries, local and national, from whichever year since the internet became part of the furniture. Exactly the same stories. Headlines, captions and articles.

Last year, for instance. From the Guardian, "Fare increases of up to 15% anger rail passengers". The watchdog describes the "new prices unjustified and unfair", the passengers calls them "outrageous", and the companies justify the 'change' as necessary for "investments and improvements".

Then this from 2007: "Train passengers face fare rise", with the customary "the money was needed to pay for ongoing service improvements", placed next to "passenger groups have criticised the price increases and said rail users are already paying high fares".
The year before, the Mirror complained that "TRAIN TICKET RISE IS SO UNFARE". Guess what, "train chiefs said the price rises were essential to pay for improvements" and "the Rail Passengers Council says many walk-on fares are now at "eye-watering" levels".

BBC News, December 2004. The rail industry says the rises are necessary to help pay for "investment to improve services". The Rail Passenger Council retorts "it's hitting passengers in the pocket".

And so here we are, ready for January 2009. The watchdog's arguing that "we cannot simply go on dumping costs onto the passenger in this way”; the rail operators repeating that "the increased revenue would help pay for investment to improve the railways and deliver better value for taxpayers"; and the Prime Minister giving the word "spineless" new depths. "Gordon Brown believed it was important customers got good value for their money", said his spokesman. Whatever the meaning, it makes Pontius Pilate sound like one of the Baader Meinhof gang.

Nobody, no paper, no journalists asking the obvious questions. I guess they must be all thinking about John Sargent. And still...

a) What the fuck is something called a "watchdog" doing if every single year the rail companies run rings round them just like that? Watching it may do, but the dog has no gnashers;

b) How long are those "improvements" going to last for?

c) Could it be that the only people enjoying said "improvements" are the shareholders?

d) Shouldn't the papers be full of horror stories about overcrowded, super-overpriced trains across the country? Where are the goading tabloids when you need them?

e) Shouldn't the Labour government be as gobby about it as they are with the incapacity benefits they keep fiddling with at each turn of the weather?

But no, that was no way to treat John Sargent...

17 comments:

socialist sam said...

Spot on. And it's not just the tabloids. Johann Hari today is talking about Martina Navratilova on I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here... The Guardian had another column about ageism and Sargent...

John B said...

Train fares rise at a couple of % above inflation every year. This isn't surprising - most of the cost of running a railway is that of paying people, and (at least when the economy's growing, as it was for the last 10 years) people like to be given pay rises above inflation every year too.

So the reason it's only treated is a minor story is because it's, err, only a minor story: every year, trains get slightly more affordable to the average person, but slightly more expensive in cash terms, than they were the year before. Like sandwiches, or pies, or haircuts, or pretty much any other consumer service that can't be imported from China.

claude said...

John B,
I guess we must live on different planets. YOu must be the only person in Britain convinced that trains are getting MORE affordable!!!

I mean, you have about 50 different fares for each route. Take London- Brum, for instance. Granted good offers do exist. But they're there tucked within a jungle of overpriced tickets, sometimes in excess of 100 quid. Unless you book 10 years in advance and a certain time slot, it will cost you an absolute fortune.

And what's this thing about "pay rises above inflation"? What's your job, you lucky lucky man?

Are you aware that bus fares, train fares, council tax, and bills are all going up way above your average salary? Why else do you think so many people have got into debt?

Ask any European person. Tey'll tell you about the mental price of our trains, or the London underground, or any bus company in the UK. And the service sucks too.

In Birmingham alone, bus prices have literally DOUBLED in the last 8 years. I can assure you salaries didn't. Unless you live in fantasyland.
And, sadly, it's a similar story for train fares.

You may quote a special offers on Chiltern to Marylebone, but the bulk of train tickets has been going up like mad. Especially if you don't book well in advance.

Anonymous said...

John B, do you work for Virgin Trains by any chance?

Stan Moss said...

So, basically, John B: you're saying that each year, passenger groups and the watchdog and the Union complaining abou the constant rises and overcrowding are talking shite

slightly more expensive in cash terms, than they were the year before.

It's proper equivocation fallacy, as the term "slightly more expensive" is used to mislead.

Of course 10% is slightly more expensive. BUt it's the speed those fares are going up, and how relentless they do each year that doesn't make it so "slight". Incidentally, 10% isn't "slightly" more expensive to some people.

John B, please answer this question: Would you say that the council tax is "slightly more expensive each year"? The electricity bills?

Finally, I 'like' the fact that you also refer to public services as if they were sandwiches or pies, but that's a wholly different story.

Emma said...

John B, forgive me if I make a few assumptions about you here.

It sounds ominously like you're one of those people who are paid (possibly a fair amount) to market the idea that customers should be milked for money.

If your blog is to be beleived You've done stuff with the Economist and the Financial times, so you're hardly going to be a railway unionist. Bob Crowe you ain't.

'Slight' increases, in your words, may be acceptable to you but to the majority of the British public, these escalating costs are making travelling by train completely unaffordable. If things carry on like this, it will be nigh impossible. Wealthy people will be the only ones able to use this means of transport.

Also have you noticed how in the last few years he number of 1st class carriages has tripled, and are always empty, and the 2nd class are always crammed?

Is this the improvement that the railway companies have been talking about year on year?

It may be only a 'minor' story to you, but its very arrogant of you to presume its a minor thing for everybody, just because you are able to pay for your travelcard without worrying about how to pay your mortgage every month, or how to afford your weekly shop.

"So the reason it's only treated is a minor story is because it's, err, only a minor story"

No doubt, err, the fact the 'slight increase' in repossessions isn't front page news is due to it being 'only a minor story' too, isn't it John?

the patriot said...

To be fair,
train tickets have been simplified. A couple of years ago it was, like Claude writes, a jungle, now it's a bit easier to negotiate.

However, John B, when you wrote every year, trains get slightly more affordable to the average person you must have been on the old waccy baccy, mate.

Obviously you're going to throw some clever economic theory at me with variables and sub-variables to justify what you wrote, but that doesnt change the fact that trains in this country are a bloody rip-off.

John B said...

If train fares rose 10% a year every year, that would be an outrage. But they don't - they rise by inflation plus 1-2% every year. The tabloids find a single example where the fares have risen by more than that, and then run "train fares rise by up to 10%" as their headline.

This year, inflation plus 1-2% does indeed make the trains less affordable, because our incomes are rising by less than inflation. But that's because we're in a recession, and can also afford fewer pies, sandwiches, etc. For the last 10 years, incomes have risen by more than 1-2% over inflation, meaning that the average person *can* afford more train travel.

That doesn't mean trains in the UK aren't more expensive than those abroad (although the massive disparity in subsidy regimes is as much of a factor as UK fatcattery - and given that the demographics of train users swing middle-class in the UK and the rest of Europe, I'm not sure that enormous rail subsidies are the best way of doing redistribution) - but it does mean you can't sensibly say they're more expensive than 10 or 15 years ago.

Buses outside London are a different and terrible story. The Transport Act 1985 is up there in the hotly contended territory of "worst legislation passed by Mrs Thatcher"; Labour's failure to repeal it and introduce London-style controls elsewhere is up there in the hotly contended territory of "most disappointing failure of Labour to reverse stupid Tory ideas".

John B said...

Also:

"I 'like' the fact that you also refer to public services as if they were sandwiches or pies"

Trains aren't exactly water or heating, are they? Most people in the UK would be far harder hit if forced to stop buying sandwiches or pies than if forced to stop travelling on trains (most people in the UK don't even travel on trains in the first place...)

"No doubt, err, the fact the 'slight increase' in repossessions isn't front page news is due to it being 'only a minor story' too"

Person A is thrown out of their house. Person B has to get the bus
or travel long-distance less often. I reckon Person A's plight is more relevant/worth-worrying-about, no?

claude said...

John B,

I dispute your way of reading facts.

Each single year, a rise of inflation PLUS 1 or 2% (or more, actually), I repeat each year, does make a difference to ordinary people.

Second, I appreciate the concept may seem alien to you, but a significant amount of people gets the train to go to work. Daily.
Therefore, it may not be as basic as bread, but it's an ESSENTIAL public service.

Those, for instance, who can't afford to run a car. 2% each year, and after a while you start feeling the difference.

But aside from the money factor. What are these IMPROVEMENTS rail operators have been going on robotically for at least 13 years? It's the hideousness and emptiness of those routine press releases that gets on my nerves. It's the same rhetoric of public utility companies. "We're investing". And off they go with another hike. And the bonuses double.

And so, back to the trains.
I don't see many improvements. There's an overcrowding problem.
I see a lot of brand new trains, sure. However, I also see a disproportionate amount of 1st class carriages.
But I'd rather spend half of what it costs now and have slightly less flashy trains, less overcrowded, and with more 2nd class carriages.
Like it is in the rest of Europe.

And so, directly related, let's talk about subsidies. What about the billions of money from the taxpayer thrown at train companies? For what?

One final point.
No doubt, err, the fact the 'slight increase' in repossessions isn't front page news is due to it being 'only a minor story' too, isn't it John?

What the poster meant, I guess, was this:
the fact that the press treats things like a minor story (i.e. repossessions are receiving less coverage than I'm A Celebrity) does NOT mean it is indeed a minor story. That's all.

John B said...

"Each single year, a rise of inflation PLUS 1 or 2% (or more, actually), I repeat each year, does make a difference to ordinary people."

But 'ordinary people', in every year up until this one, have seen their pay rise by inflation PLUS MORE THAN 1 or 2%. That's the whole point.

"Second, I appreciate the concept may seem alien to you, but a significant amount of people gets the train to go to work. Daily.
Therefore, it may not be as basic as bread, but it's an ESSENTIAL public service.
"

Yes, and I'm one of them (well, if you count LU as 'the train'). In London, it probably is an essential public service, in that there's no real alternative and people wouldn't be able to lead their current lives without it. In the rest of the country, it pretty much isn't.

the fact that the press treats things like a minor story (i.e. repossessions are receiving less coverage than I'm A Celebrity) does NOT mean it is indeed a minor story.

Fair.

claude said...

I have to rush to work now, John B, but may I say I appreciate your good manners and measured tone in the debate.

It doesn't happen very often, especially online!!! SO fair play to you.

claude said...

This is for the chap from FantasyLand (or the school of Comical Ali) who said pay rises have been above inflation.

http://business.timesonline.co.uk/
tol/business/economics/budget_2008/article3517108.ece

John B said...

As I said in reply to that link on my blog, that's a voodoo poll from an Internet company.

If incomes weren't running ahead of inflation, on average, over the 1995-2007 period, how do you explain the actual, observed, 2-3% average annual growth in real income per head over the same period...? Leprechauns?

Matthew Cain said...

and you end up paying twice effectively: http://www.matthewtaylorsblog.com/publicattitudes/why-i-will-avoid-virgin/

Planet Me said...

Think of it this way. Some people don't get payrises at all. Others, in the public sector, could get as little as 2.5% per year. A 1-2% above inflation rise, with inflation, means that their wages shrink each year. You don't create wealth with above inflation rises - you only raise prices. Add to that compound rates means that over years, a 1-2% above inflation rise soon becomes a 10% rise, as we';re talking 100, then 102% x 102% (104.04%) x 102% = 106.12%....

Ceri said...

This has all been very good natured so far, and I'm not going to spoil that. It seems to me that most of the posters generally agree on most issues, perhaps just disagreeing with the emphasis of JohnB's first point. I think PlanetMe's post made a good point- that average wage increases hide important differences in wage increases for different groups.
Higher wage earners have seen higer increases, and, surprise surprise, lower earners smaller increases. Given the large number of public sector workers who have seen no real increase over the last few years, or that a lot of the increase in the very lowest earners' increase would have come from minimum wage increases, does put increases in average wages in perspective.
Moreover, train fares have incresed by at least 1-2% above inflation- some fares go up by a lot more, especially longer distances.
The main point, though, is that train fares in the UK were too high anyway, and the service was very poor. Increasing prices by these amounts whilst failing to improve services, and sucking in subsidies for doing so, is what gets people angry.