Justin’s Column – 10 January 2014

JustinTomlinsonFor many, this week was the first week back at work after the festive break and for Swindon’s thousands of commuters, the first week back on the train. January is the harbinger of New Year optimism, but also the rail fare rises that are an unpleasant, but not unsurprising, post-Christmas cost.

Our railways must be paid for. It is about striking the balance between taxpayer and traveller who are largely one and the same. Decades of underinvestment has led to poor punctuality, hopeless reliability and thousands of miles spent by travellers on overcrowded services, crammed into a space at least 20% smaller than their physical selves. Without investment, one day the network will simply implode.

The annual rail fare escalator is not new, rail fares have been rising since 2004. This is not the outrage. The disgrace is that fares were rising but investment was non-existent. The last Labour Government did not see fit to offer Swindon’s commuters a better service for the extra money they were paying.

There are those to attribute the high cost of our railways to privatisation, who call for public ownership as being the answer to lower fares. Nonsense.

Fares are expensive because our infrastructure is ancient and expensive to maintain, because commuter trains are full to overflowing and because nothing has been done about it. In thirteen years, Labour electrified a pitiful 10 miles of track. On this trajectory, fares would continue to spiral higher and higher.

The problem is not privatisation nor profit, but the product. Government intervened this year to fix the fare rise to inflation, rather than the historic inflation plus 3% that saw 8%+ fare rises. Yet, whilst the rise was smaller than planned, we still think that customers should see something for their extra money.

Swindon commuters will. Those commuting towards Cheltenham will see more frequent and reliable services thanks to the investment in redoubling the Swindon-Kemble track. Commuters to London and Bristol will see journey times cut and a capacity increase thanks to the near billion pounds we are spending on electrification. Travellers to Heathrow will have a much easier journey thanks to the new track giving access direct to the airport from the West. When you consider the recent fare rises in isolation, what you get in return is what you should have had all along. Better service.

Investment is the only way to reduce fares long term. As long as the trains are full, fares will rise. It is only through increased capacity that fares will fall. Advance ticket sales already reflect this as busier services are more expensive. If we create capacity, prices will fall to fill it. That is exactly what we are doing.