20 August 2012

The £1000 rail ticket increase

A COMBINATION of wrangles over privatisation and a planned bumper increase on all rail fares could lead to the annual bill for commuters living in Stoke increasing by more than £1000 in 2013.

I have my issues with Virgin. Branson makes me suspicious. I know he is anti-trade union and I really, really don't like this whole Virgin-getting-involved-in-the-NHS business. That said, I use Virgin broadband and TV services, and far prefer handing over my Sky Sports football taxes to Beardie rather than Murdoch.

The other thing Virgin does with startling mediocrity is operate the rail services on the West Coast mainline. It's been hit and miss over the past 10 years. They brought in some genuinely welcome new ideas for rail travel - onboard wi-fi, quiet zones, at seat audio, a fully-stocked shop. But the overcrowding, absurdly large and always empty First Class area, appallingly restrictive peak times for services and that fucking annoying mystery beep overshadowed the experience for many.

Arguably the best thing Virgin Trains did, at some point around 2008, was introduce the Virgin Only tickets between Stoke-on-Trent and Manchester, knocking a decent amount off the standard price of tickets from the Potteries to Piccadilly station.

I've never known exactly why Virgin did this. I remember something being said at the time about how it was an example of "competition working" on the rail network as there are several alternative - and slower - services from Stoke to Manchester each hour, run by the appallingly bad Cross Country and Northern Rail franchises - each costing much more money to travel on.

Either way, Branson's boys and girls became the commuters choice - simply on price.

For comparison here are the prices compared for Virgin Only, and Standard Season tickets.

7 day pass: £66.70 (Standard) vs £48.70 (Virgin Only)
Difference of £18 a week - adds up to £936 over a year.

Monthly: £256.20 (Standard) vs £187.10 (Virgin Only)
Difference of £69.10 a month - adds up to £829 a year. 

Annual: £2668 (Standard) vs £1948 (Virgin Only)
Difference of £720 over a year.

As you can see, the differences are huge. For anyone on a tight budget. the difference of £70 a month is vast and potentially life-changing. £800 a year is the difference between a family being able to manage a holiday or not.

The thing is that Stoke has been hit hard when it comes to jobs. Apart from the artificially low wages, the closure of coal, steel and then finally the flight abroad by the pottery companies, has meant the city has largely been in a sort of permanent recession for the best part of 40 years.

That's why more and more of us who live there travel to Manchester - and other cities - every year. 35 minutes on the train and you're in the heart of Manchester and, more importantly, a major UK employment hub. Given the continued absence of any large scale new industry in Stoke, the rail link is a vital economic lifeline - an artery to relative prosperity that allows residents to bring some much needed hard cash into the area.

So what's the big deal?

Well, Virgin have lost the franchise. It's gone to First Group - a company I have fairly terrible experiences of during my period of travelling excessively between London and Cardiff.

The most important thing to understand here is that the cheap fares introduced by Virgin are not legally binding. Therefore, nothing is stopping the next operator coming in and tearing up those offers and returning the fares to the standard rate. First are paying the government £1 billion more than Virgin tendered. Where's that money going to come from? Whatever likely attacks on staff First Group manage to cook up to save some cash, you can bet the punter will be fleeced further as well.

The nightmare scenario is if First Group come in this January and tear up the cheap fares. Along with that, the across-the-board annual increase will kick in too - estimated to be an average of 11% for each ticket in England.

Taking into account the loss of the cheap fares, and putting an estimated 10% increase on the price of the Stoke-to-Manchester season ticket, you can see a new annual standard travel-card for Stoke to Manchester costing £2934.80. That's just under £1000 difference from the price of a 2012 Virgin Only season ticket.

Given that most people can't afford the cost of paying upfront for an annual season ticket, and employers are generally too mean to offer loans, the reality is that most people pay monthly or weekly which obviously work out at costing more.

Given the figures above, if First Group do away with the cheap tickets, commuters in Stoke will be looking at finding a cool extra £1000 a year to pay for the privilege of getting to work.

Of course, if that comes to pass, many won't stomach it if they can help it.

Some might quit their jobs in Manchester and throw themselves at the mercy of the local market. Not an attractive prospect.

Some, with the option, might get back in their cars, adding to the already manic M6 traffic rush and carbon footprint.

Some might move. Either to Manchester or one of the many commuter towns outside it, thus taking more money out of the already weak Stoke economy.

But the reality for many more will be that they will just have to find the money, as quitting a stable job or moving house is simply not an option for them.

We need to pay more to travel, we are told, because railways are getting more popular and need more investment. But unlike supermarkets and broadband providers - popularity of railways doesn't mean prices being cut - in fact they are going the other way.

If ever there was an example of the ordinary working people being made to pay for the failures of the profit system, this is it.

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