Train fares: Is Labour on the wrong track?
This morning, commuters got a “nasty new year shock”, at least according to shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle, as they faced inflation-busting increases in ticket fares for the tenth year in a row - a 4.2 per cent average price increase this year. With a pricing system that doesn’t connect with passengers, Mike Hewitson of Passenger Focus stated that a lack of trust in the ticketing system is what underpins passenger frustration.
Michael Roberts, chief executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies, was eager to point out that it is not the train operators who decide what the increase in regulated fares should be, but is in fact the government. This has led Eagle to claim that David Cameron has misled commuters in breaking his pledge that rail fares would not rise by more than one per cent above inflation, whilst making a promise that Labour would strictly enforce a fare cap on every route. Perhaps Nick Clegg can teach his coalition partners how to apologise?
This may, however, be seen as little more than a cheap political attack. Since 2004 - under Labour - prices have increased above inflation, a pattern inherited by the coalition which has merely been continued. Transport minister Norman Baker has accepted that family budgets are being “squeezed” and the situation is “not ideal” but was keen to highlight that David Cameron had diverted from the 2010 Spending Review; reducing the planned, recommended rise from three per cent above inflation - incidentally the amount Labour had abided by - to one per cent above inflation until 2014.
All this comes on the day Ed Miliband has been called out by Nick Clegg in The Times to decide which cuts Labour would keep, and which they would abolish. Perhaps Labour’s criticism would carry more weight if they had some concrete policies, and credible alternatives, of their own.
Eagle also states that rail fare increases are “going straight into the train companies’ profits” - a questionable and unfair insinuation of greed, given that this government is investing in huge infrastructure programmes for the rail network; such as building HS2 or electrifying more than 850 miles of railways compared with the nine miles that were electrified in the previous 13 years by Labour. Yet this may offer little comfort for the thousands of passengers who face no real choice from a government which has taken the position that more funding needs to come from the passenger and not the taxpayer.