by Kevin Meagher
I must confess to being entirely unfamiliar with the concept of a “super off-peak ticket” until the other day when the attendant at St. Pancras Station pointed out that I had one and, given it was after 3.15pm, I was ineligible to travel on the train I was just about to hop on to.
If I’d had the forethought to buy an off-peak ticket (which I thought I had), I could have travelled until 4.00pm. That’s the point when the cheapo riff-raff (like me) are chucked off the system altogether for the full fare brigade and have to wait until 7.00pm.
And what pleasure lay in store!
All I can say is “thank you” East Midlands Trains. Thank you for the ancient, rattling rolling stock.
Thanks, also, for the uncomfortable seats, with spongy cushions and itchy coverings.
For the fixed armrests and legroom designed for Snow White’s pals.
For the hair-trigger vestibule doors, which fling open with every gust of wind.
For the depleted buffet trolley, with its cold tea and warm beer.
For the blocked toilets and lack of running water.
And, perhaps most of all, thank you for the unmistakable aroma of stale food and bodily gasses, that seems to permeate from the carriages of all of your services.
None of this is to make the case that I have been particularly hard done to. And that’s the point. We, the rail travelling public, have had our expectations of reasonable treatment ground so low, over such a long period of time, that we are simply grateful for a space to stand in and the chance of a gulp of second-hand oxygen.
We have become so inured to being shafted on a daily basis by the train operating companies (TOCs) that our wearied resignation either flakes off into indifference or hardens into resolve: renationalise the railways.
It is a seductive thought. But it runs into realpolitik. Is it really a priority when the next Labour government will have bigger fish to fry and won’t have the money – or the political energy – to deal with the railways as a pressing concern?
Yes, letting the train operating companies’ franchises expire is one way of taking them back into public ownership; but then the need to address chronic under-investment and improve customer satisfaction then immediately becomes a ministerial headache. As it stands, the train operating companies provide a useful buffer.
Rather than the state picking up the pieces and the next transport secretary getting all the blame for expectations running ahead of what can realistically be achieved, wouldn’t it be better – and politically smarter – to get some payback from the train companies?
As a recent report from Manchester University points out, the TOCs enjoy a pre-tax return on capital employed of 121.8 per cent. This compares to just 1.34 per cent for publicly-owned Network Rail. This is a high-yield, low risk arrangement that short changes the taxpayer and travelling public alike.
Yet, tighter regulation, rather than state ownership, can deliver improvements. Squeeze the TOCs. Get the public subsidy to the train operators right down. Allow them a reasonable rate of return, but cut off their profiteering on the public purse. Make them treat their customers better. Insist on a baseline and hold them to it. Make fines hurt and hold them to account for any failures.
The thought occurred when Shadow Transport Secretary Mary Creagh, tweeted this on Sunday:
Absolutely no reason 4 people to stand on @VirginTrains when first class is empty. Trains should b declassified 4 delayed passengers!
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She’s right. What is needed is a customer charter with real bite. Cancelled services and late trains should result in refunds. Being forced to stand up should see partial refunds – or the option of sitting in first class, as Creagh suggests. Hell, why not base the specification for all carriages on first class?
Labour can provide a compelling, popular and deliverable series of promises to the rail travelling public by simply tightening the screw on the TOCs. Better this approach than expending political capital, parliamentary time and vast amounts of public money simply to give the transport secretary a new train set to play with.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut