Pity the poor commuters who's train fares will rise tomorrow by an average of 5.9%. And remember this is just an average and just for this year. The government has announced that fares will go up by RPI+3% next year and again RPI+3% in 2014 as well. If RPI is 3% for the next two years then that would mean a staggering 16% cost rise over three years.
This year the government has changed the rules.Some commuters, like those unfortunates who travel from Chester to Crew, will have to suffer an increase of 10.6% this year and heaven knows what that increase will be next year.
The rational is that government and the Association of Train Operating Companies both want to increase investment in our ailing railway system. We'd all agree with that. But government has decided to fund a few, very high costs schemes like Crossrail, Thameslink and the new High Speed Link. So the man who lives in Chester and works in Crew seems to be unfairly subsidising large and important schemes down south, rather that see his own train services improve.
This is a difficult connundrum for the government who can not be blamed for the mistakes of the past. All recent governments have failed to invest sufficiently in our rail system. The myth that private enterprise will do it is long dead - stopped in its tracks ('scuse the pun) - by the recession.
There is something we can do. The Campaign for Better Transport is hoping that tomorrow commuters will text, tweet or email the treasury to tell them how much their own fares have increased and say what that means to them personally. Check out the website FARE FARES NOW.
I think one of the problems the government have is that they are obsessed with speed, rather than regularity of service. Of course we don't want slow trains, but so often the cuts in any form of public transport lead to fewer services across a shorter working day. But the trend is for people to work more flexible hours. Commuter fares do encourage people to travel outside peak hours, but they do nothing to encourage other low carbon initiatives like tele-working once a week, for example. Also some enlightened employers consider train travel time to be work time. You can tap away on your lap-top as well on an Intercity train, as you can at your desk. Train travel should be recognised as part of the working day in the way that driving a car can not be.
The national need is not to shave a few minutes off any one particular train journey but to reduce traffic on the roads during peak hours and to reduce carbon emissions. Policies don't take that into consideration at the moment. For example it's cheaper to fly from London to Manchester or Scotland than take the train. That's just plain stupid!
Please don't stop using trains, but perhaps just get a bit better at finding the cheapest fare.
Here are my top ten tips for cheap train travel:
- Become a student - a student card gives a third off even at peak times! (And London students get cheaper Oyster travel as well.)
- National rail enquiries on the web now has a cheapest fare icon - which is worth checking out.
- Book ahead. Use ticket bucket shops like megatrain.com (though you do sometimes find that the journey is by coach!) Train tickets booked well in advance on the slower trains cost as little as £1.
- Take the coach instead of the train. The Oxford Tube is a very comfortable and often speedier way of getting between London and the Centre of Oxford.
- Take the slower train or a different route - for example the walk on fare is £19.90 to take an afternoon train via London Midland Railways from London Marylebone to Birmingham but Virgin passengers at Euston can pay £79.00 standard single fare. The time difference is about half an hour.
- Stay at home. Consider Scype'ing your colleague or holding a teleconference (many websites for this)
- Take a heritage steam line. It might not be cheaper or quicker but it can be fun.
- Go to the train company website and get on their marketing list so that you get to hear about special deals. (These do not get recorded by National Rail Enquiries)
- When on holiday consider rover tickets which can provide very good savings if you are taking a number of journeys.
- Take a friend and/or a family along with you. Many train companies offer family fares, especially at weekends, and you don't actually have to be related!
As always on matters of trains, my friend Mark Smith has an excellent cheap fares advice page on his wonderful website The Man at Seat 61