Time To End The Great British Transport Rip-Off

  By VennerRoad, 26th Jan 2015

There is an alternative to the scandalous cost of public transport in London and the UK.

Kings Cross Station photographed by Cmglee

Every year I tell myself I won’t go to Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve, and every New Year’s Eve I do. On the last day of 2014 I walked to Sydenham Station, earlier than usual, and asked at the ticket office for a single to Central London; the buses and trains are free in the small hours of New Year’s Day. As I tendered the fare, the booking clerk told me it would be £7.00. What, I said? £7.00, he repeated. No way, I said, it isn’t anything like that. It has been for some time, he said. I didn’t want to accuse him of lying, but the expletive I used was sufficiently strong for him to understand what I thought. I left the station, angry, and walked to Forest Hill, getting something to eat on the way.

At Forest Hill I was charged £4.10, which is the same as the fare from Sydenham. On New Year’s Day I fired off an angry e-mail to London Overground, and after an acknowledgement I received a full reply. You can read the correspondence here.

Angry as I was and remain, I had a choice, being semi-retired and spending most of my days in front of a computer, I don’t travel much, and don’t need to. Many people don’t have that same choice. For some commuters, travel is a major weekly expense, taking a large or even a huge chunk out of their budgets, and there is no escaping it. For many people, the train or the car are the only options, some have to use both. I’ve never owned a car, and frankly never wanted to; motoring was once regarded as a pleasure; apart from Lewis Hamilton and a few others who are lucky enough to be paid to drive, I doubt anybody regards it as such today. Running even a small car is an enormous expense: insurance, regular maintenance, petrol, and for many people, congestion charges, parking fees, even fines. Let’s stick with public transport though.

What do you call someone who rides on a train or bus? The obvious answer is a passenger, but when the networks were privatised, they started calling us customers, so that we understand we are paying for a service, and for the most part, paying through the nose. Unlike apparently most regular rail users, I have no complaints about the quality of the service, probably because I always travel off-peak, but the price of travel is clearly the big issue.

Not content with charging extortionate fares, and ripping us off whenever they can, the attitude of the rail companies leaves much to be desired. Everywhere there are notices warning that crossing this line without a valid ticket will have dire consequences for the passenger, sorry, customer. There have been instances where enormous “fines” have been levied on passengers gratuitously. Yes, passengers!

Then there is the abolition of cash fares on buses, and the increasing closure of booking offices; the former is particularly obnoxious. What is a tourist supposed to do? What about someone who needs to attend a hospital or perhaps to make a one-off journey somewhere at an unconventional hour? This appears to be not simply a London or UK problem but increasingly a worldwide phenomenon. It is clear that public transport bodies regard themselves not first and foremost as public anything but private corporations which are set up primarily for profit. There is of course nothing wrong with making a profit, that is what taxis are for, but public transport is a natural monopoly, and as such should be run for the public good. Alas, this perfidious set up doesn’t end there.

Writing for London Metro earlier this month, Mary Stringer pointed out that not only are the privatised train companies ripping off the travelling public, they are ripping off the taxpayer as well, because their franchises - so-called - are heavily subsidised. This means we get the worst of both worlds. Their pathetic excuse is that they make only a token profit, while this subsidy along with extortionate fares is necessary to “invest” in the upgrades and improvements that are taking place. There have indeed been some noticeable improvements, but if these services have to be subsidised, they might just as well be renationalised so that the people - ie us - get the full benefit. How about going one step further? How about a fare-free transport system for London, for the UK and for every nation worldwide, if not at a national level then certainly for most cities and major towns? Before you dismiss that suggestion as cloud cuckooland stuff, do the math like I did. I wrote to then Mayor of London Ken Livingstone in October 2000; it was nearly 9 years before I received a reply; you can read the correspondence here.

If you want to consider something more ambitious, try my plan for the nation as a whole. Again, before you dismiss this as pie in the sky, do the math like I did. There are in fact a number of cities worldwide that do provide fare-free public transport systems. I am not hopeful of this happening here in any measure, and am even less hopeful that my master plan will someday be implemented, but clearly something drastic has to be done in the UK; we need to totally rethink the very concept of public transport, if it becomes affordable or better still fare-free, it will get us all moving, boost the economy, improve the quality of our air, and save us all money - the people and the government - in the short, medium and long run. As for the fat cats who batten off the transport system and us, who cares about them?

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