Page last updated at 13:13 GMT, Thursday, 19 February 2009

Q&A: What lies behind UK rail fares?

Inspector checking tickets
It is not true that European rail travel is much better than in Britain

The cost of rail travel in the UK has come in for new criticism after a passenger watchdog report found fares were on average 50% higher in Britain than on the continent.

The Passenger Focus report showed some fares cost nearly 90% more than comparable journeys in the next most expensive European country.

BBC travel correspondent Tom Symonds explains why.

WHY DO UK FARES COST MORE?

The main reason is that our railways are older and need more investment. Some of this has already been spent - the modernisation of the West Coast Main Line cost 9bn. The government has also announced it is buying 7.5bn worth of new inter-city trains, named the Super Express.

But the real difference is the split between taxpayers contributing to the cost and fare-payers. There is a policy of increasing the amount fare-payers pay, and as a result government-controlled prices go up by 1% above inflation every year.

WHY ARE TICKETS SO COMPLICATED?

This is largely a by-product of privatisation. The private rail companies are now able to market cheap deals to try to fill up their emptier trains. The reverse is also true. With record numbers using trains, higher prices are used to persuade people to travel when it is quieter.

The result is a complicated system of fares and restrictions on when tickets can be used. This means it can cost as little as 15 to get from London to Manchester, or as much as 193 for a single.

WHY DO PRICES RISE DESPITE INCREASED SUBSIDIES?

There is a perception that rail companies - and bosses - are making big profits while passengers pay more and more. Is that right?

It can be difficult to tell because most train operations are run by bigger groups which also run bus services here and abroad. But they do make sizeable profits, FirstGroup, one of the main transport companies, made 580m last year, National Express brought in 113m.

But the economic downturn will reduce those profits, and as rail franchises are renewed, the government is increasingly requiring extra money taken in fares is passed on in bigger payments for the right to run the franchises themselves - this may go into new train carriages for example.

Train companies also pay Network Rail for access to the tracks - cash which is spent on tracks and stations. Network Rail makes no profits. The funding of the railways is complicated, but it is fair to say that much of the cash taken in fares ends up being spent on improving the service.

ARE PASSENGERS BENEFITING FROM INVESTMENT?

The government says it cannot lower prices (by increasing subsidies) because it would mean diverting money away from vital investment. And it argues that we need to continue investing in railways, but that it should not just be down to the taxpayer to do this, the investment needs to come from fares.

Realistically, there are so many calls on the public purse at the moment, the funding mix is not going to change.

Passengers are, however, benefiting from improved services. Punctuality is now good on average at around 93% of trains running on time. And the big investment in the West Coast Main Line has resulted in faster and more frequent trains. The order for new intercity carriages will improve East Coast and Great Western services in future, though their tracks also need work.

But there is still a problem with overcrowding and many passengers on busy commuter lines cannot expect much relief from that any time soon.

WHAT IS BEING DONE TO TACKLE OVERCROWDING?

The emphasis at the moment is on making better use of what we have got - removing bottlenecks in the track network to allow more services to run. After all, most tracks are at full capacity - their signalling systems cannot take any more trains.

There is an order for 1,400 new commuter train carriages but they will not arrive until 2014. The government has just announced it wants to build a new high-speed rail line from London to Scotland, but that is probably a decade away.

Overcrowding remains the biggest problem facing the railways, though in the short term, the recession will relieve the problem as passenger numbers ease off.

IS EUROPEAN RAIL TRAVEL REALLY MUCH BETTER?

No. It is true that there are some fantastic high-speed rail systems on the Continent. France, Germany and Spain have invested more in these than Britain has. We currently boast just one high-speed line, and for the moment it only takes Eurostar trains (the high speed domestic service to St Pancras starts in December).

But commuter trains abroad are often far older than ours. And we have the most frequent train services in Europe. This is important for a geographically small and crowded country, and given that our cities are closer together than those in France, for example, frequency rather than speed may be the most important goal.

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