The UK has suffered above inflation rises on its rail fares; this is far from anything new. It’s become something of a dreaded January tradition that with cruel speed, snatches away the alcohol-induced hedonistic belief that this year could be better than the last. 2013 marks the tenth anniversary of this harsh lesson of UK life and the ninth that I have been fighting it; starting in London in 2004 with a passenger lobby group called Commuter Voice.
Ten years on, the rhetoric from the government and train companies is the same. ‘The network and stock need investment. It’s only fair the passengers who use the service pay for that investment.’ The rhetoric is not the only thing that has remained the same – so has the poor standard of service and trains, lack of available seating and a ridiculously complicated ticketing system. After ten years, passengers have the right to demand more and better – but they won’t; they never do.
As the founder and spokesperson of Commuter Voice, I was a rent-a-quote for the media when it came to public transport concerns. As each January hike approached, I was the obvious target for news journalists. “What’s your opinion of the new fare increases?” Year after year: The same rhetoric, the same questions – the same answers. “If comparable cities in Europe can invest in public transport without bleeding their passengers, then so can the UK.” “Constant over inflation increases is unsustainable. We need a plan B, but there is none.” “Financially squeezing people off public transport halts social as well as geographical movement of the low-paid and acts as the thinning of the lifeblood that should flow through the nation.” What else could be said?
Over the years, I became something of a trivia encyclopedia on the subject of public transport. In 1973, we had the third faster train in the world: The Intercity 125. Yet it took the UK 20 years longer than it took the French to get a decent train to operate through the Channel Tunnel. Ten years of over-inflation hikes and despite the promises of investment in public transport, the UK rail transport is still way behind the French, the Spanish, The Germans, the Czechs, the list goes on and on. How did we manage to bring public transport to an effective standstill?
The answer is not the government or the train companies; it’s the general public. Just as the rhetoric of the funders and operator hasn’t changed over the decade, neither has that of the public. Like many, I was a mouthpiece rolled out each January. I grumbled in front of the cameras and was then packed away when the next news item came along. When I realised that the fight needs to be all year long and began to garner support, I came across many passengers who said: “There is nothing we can do about it.” and “Why should I use my tax to subsidise someone to get cheap fares to work?” I hear those very same points made by the current crop of public transport rent-a-quotes.
The British doesn’t really protest. We grumble. We do it every increase of fares as we do with fuel increases. Just over a decade ago, commuters in Sydney, Australia, charged through the train barriers one day, overwhelming the station staff, and rode the trains for free – as a protest to their high fare costs. The British would never do that. If we did, money for investment would suddenly be found elsewhere and all the politicians would be falling over themselves to show their support. We allow ourselves to get bled dry by the train companies and patronised by the media. We get the fares we deserve.