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Friday, 30 November 2007

Yorkshire Post: Raising fares is not the answer to our rail crisis (Theresa Villiers)

An article from today's Yorkshire Post which mentions the Woodhead Tunnel, by Shadow Transport Secretary, Theresa Villiers:

This week's announcement on fare increases for rail passengers in 2008 made grim reading. It puts yet more pressure on family budgets.

The railways have seldom been out of the headlines this year. First came fare rises, then the passengers' strikes, then reports of a "third world" service and growing concerns throughout the year about the chronic overcrowding. Small wonder the latest National Passenger Survey reported the lowest ever score for our railways on value for money.

In July, the Government was forced to admit that the busiest services in the UK run at 150 per cent capacity. This is no longer just an issue for South-East commuter routes; it is a real problem for many lines in and out of cities across the North.

Figures indicate that 57 per cent of the passengers on the 07.31 service from Barnsley to Leeds had to stand for much of their journey.

Yet fares on the East Coast Main Line will go up in Yorkshire by an average of 4.8 per cent for regulated fares – season tickets, savers and standard day returns – and 6.6 per cent for unregulated tickets.

From January 2, a walk-on-and-go saver return from Leeds to London will go up from £149.60 to about £156.78. A walk-on-and-go open return for the same journey will rise from £370 to about £400.

And, on the morning rush-hour service from Sheffield to Leeds, where serious overcrowding problems have been reported, fares will rise from £19.20 to over £20 for the privilege
of standing for anywhere up to
an hour. Other parts of the country could see increases as high as 14
per cent.

This week's announcement would not have attracted so much controversy if it were not the latest in a long line of fare increases. The regrettable truth is that the Government's fingerprints are all over these fare rises. Ministers are using fare rises to try to price people off trains to hide their failure to deal with overcrowding.

Last year, an official at the Department for Transport was quoted as saying that rail fares were "a good commercial solution to the problem of overcrowding".

The franchise process through which the Government allocates routes to the private sector operators has become a dutch auction; the only concern of Ministers is how to force bidders to squeeze even more money out of their customers.

Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly has no idea how to deal with the problems that rail passengers face on a daily basis. On the one hand, the Government says they want to encourage people to leave their cars at home and take public transport.

After their "spy-in-the-sky" national road pricing scheme recently bit the dust, they are pushing hard for local authorities to bring in congestion charging. Yet such schemes are very hard to justify unless they operate alongside reliable and reasonably priced public transport.

And what about the Government's green credentials? In October, Ruth Kelly said "a fundamental goal of transport policy must be to ensure that the transport sector plays its proper role in our fight to tackle climate change". How exactly does she intend to do this with never-ending, steep above-inflation increases aimed at forcing people back into their cars?

Earlier this year, Ms Kelly offered to add 1,300 extra carriages for the rail network across the country. Now I do not scoff at these extra carriages. Quite the opposite. They are desperately needed, even if 1,000 of them had already been announced by her predecessor.

However, when you look at the small print, you find out that these carriages will only be delivered in stages up to 2014. By that time, overcrowding will be a great deal worse and the extra carriages will be a sticking plaster stuck across a much bigger problem.

And almost nine months on from when they were first trailed, the Government st
ill has no idea where they are going to go. People in Yorkshire (and elsewhere) want to know whether their line will benefit. This is typical of the dithering we see again and again – the same dithering that leaves the Woodhead Tunnel unused when there is so much pressure on trans-Pennine transport links.

We need to tackle the overcrowding crisis head on with long-lasting and carefully considered reform of the way our railways work: better co-operation and integration between the management of track and train; less micro-management and bureaucracy from civil servants; a stronger cross-industry focus on getting costs down to free up resources for the expansion of capacity we desperately need; and firmly putting the consumer in the driving seat so that anyone providing a sub-standard service is forced to sharpen up their game.