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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 January 2008, 18:27 GMT
Counting the cost of rail travel
By Anna Browning
BBC News

Conductor and passenger
Rail journeys have risen more than 40% in the past 10 years

As the New Year brings another above-inflation hike in rail fares in the UK, disruption and yet more delays, just why is travelling by train so costly in this country and do we get value for money?

A quick look on the ticket booking website the Trainline for 7 January and you only have to compare a standard journey between Rome and Naples (120 miles and 15) and Sheffield and Newcastle (112 miles, 43) to see the difference.

Likewise, on 9 January Paris to Toulouse (207 miles) costs 53, while London to Truro (232 miles) is 74.

Although of course, as every seasoned rail traveller knows, the true picture is a little more complicated.

We have moved towards an Easyjet railway without having much of a debate about it
Anthony Smith, Passenger Focus
Happy to travel before 7am and book in advance and a trip from Sheffield to Newcastle can be bought for 7. Likewise London to Truro can be 15.

According to Anthony Smith, chief executive of Passenger Focus, an independent public body which represents rail passengers: "Flexibility has become very, very expensive.

"We have moved towards an Easyjet railway without having much of a debate about it," he said.

So what does he mean?

Market-led system

Since the 1960s, UK rail has adopted a market-led system in place of a distance-led one.

Now passengers are not charged according to the length of their journey, but on "flow and yield", similar to the airlines, according to Edward Funnell, spokesman for the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc).

While Britain has some of the highest fares in Europe, it also has some of the cheapest, he said.

Two for one offers, groups savers and railcards, for example, mean train operators do offer value for money.

SNCF trains
France's SNCF is heavily subsidised

"We have a more liberalised system," he said, "other countries have more national, monolithic-style rail."

Which brings us to tax.

In France, according to 2004 figures from the private watchdog l'iFRAP, of the 16.3 billion euros (12.1bn) it takes to run its rail network, 8.6 billion euros (6.4bn) comes from its customers while the tax payer coughs up 7.7 billion euros (5.7bn).

Government funds also pay for a 55 billion euros long-term debt and very favourable pensions for train drivers.

In the UK, in a 2007 White Paper, the government outlined plans to spend 2.5bn from 2009 to 2014, while it wants passenger contributions to rise to 9bn.

Says Edward Funnell, elements of the British model are now being "held up by the EU as a way to go".

"They are quite interested in what Britain is doing," he said.

He pointed to France and Germany, where some private companies were now operating, mostly in freight. Connex, a name of old on Britain's railways, now runs routes in Germany for example.

So where do the billions raised in ticket prices each year go?

World first

According to Mr Funnell about 45% goes to Network Rail, 12% on leasing trains from rolling stock companies, 17% on staffing, 21% on maintenance and administration, while 2% is profit.

I cannot afford to go on a train so I use my car
Darrell Hughes

In many ways Britain's railways over the past 10 years have become a success story. Passenger numbers have risen by more than 40%, more than other countries in Europe. In 2006 there were 1.147 million journeys made in the UK, according to Atoc.

We have one of the world's first railways, one of the densest rail networks, and per head of population, one of the biggest train travelling nations.

Which is another reason, says Anthony Smith, of Passenger Focus, for our unique fare structure.

"We are a small country and the railways are heavily used. For a long time fares have been used as a way of controlling access, according to the space available on the trains," he said.

But, with value for money now top priority for passengers, it was time this changed, he said.

Shouldn't we be able to just turn up at a station and not pay through the nose for a ticket?

"People want to use the railway in a flexible way. All our research shows passengers want to be able to do that," he said.

The government says it protects passengers by limiting how much operators can increase fares.

As they are kept no higher than 1% above inflation, regulated fares are no higher now in real terms than they were at privatisation, the Department for Transport said.

A spokeswoman says: "Where fares do rise they are helping to pay for record investment in a growing railway - in new trains, refurbished stations and more reliable services. As a result of this investment, passenger numbers are at record levels."


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