The red Tory who brought back privatisation?

With the British transport system under fire over a decade of declining performance, one study argues that liberalised rail fares, cheap commuter fares and a lack of capacity mean there could be a job for everyone outside London and the south-east

The reign of the grey bearded chap who negotiated a free rail service in the north and banned passengers from wearing jumpers in the South between the wars has been brought to an end, with a new face appearing on Britain’s rail network. But with the clock ticking to a new administration, experts have warned that the new champion of rail could push up fares even further.

The last Conservative administration took a train-shopping passion from successive Labour regimes, making free commuter rail travel available to all and introducing the cheap train tickets that followed.

The Red Tory hero – his train timetables are shaped by more than a 50-year aversion to flannel and DBY Dan in suits – enjoyed public transport more than the UK’s celebrated (and rare) train robber, Ronnie Biggs.

His latest act of public transport reform has been a flurry of public announcements and press statements about the new “train of the future” as the government seeks to improve passengers’ experience of train journeys and improve transport links through at least the next parliament.

But an analysis of the traditional British rail map suggests there is a lot more ground to be covered before the North/South divide that wreaked havoc during the austerity era has been overcome.

The new head of the Department for Transport (DfT), Chris Grayling, who refused to give a debut interview to the Press Association last night, may be a former chauffeur, but he has made it clear that like it or not, the barriers to reducing train journey times are gone and the revolution of “multi-speed” trains that ran at the start of this month is here to stay.

With this in mind, rail experts say Grayling will be turning the clock back to the 1970s, when pay restraint and overcrowding were the order of the day, fares were sacrosanct and all of northern and western England could travel with confidence to south-west England and the south-east.

It may not come as a surprise to many that the first rail controversy arising out of the changes at the DfT has been the increasing capacity to travel to the north of England and the Midlands, something that was not even guaranteed before liberalisation.

The one potential deal-breaker is how much fares would be increased if passengers increased their use to the rest of the country. At the time of the last election, the Conservatives claimed to be pro-train by keeping train fares steady compared with the CPI inflation rate, but their manifesto was vague on the issue of a potential increase.

The Department for Transport confirmed the CPI rate would be applied on any price rise when a regulated rail contract is up for renewal, but said that in that scenario passenger fares would automatically be frozen if an increase to the retail price index of any kind was above 2%.

A London-based expert, who did not want to be named, says: “RPI has now risen above 2% so that takes a massive chunk out of any fare increase, but things may be a lot different once Grayling’s landlady has gone. Then there is the ‘great train of the future’ that can run at 800mph, but trains on the northern rail network may struggle to keep up.

“Free rail is probably best for the best, but by taking away the ‘cultural barriers’, the rail operators will have an easier time convincing commuters to leave the south, so it is a difficult time to be an unelected public service or rail watchdog.”

Meanwhile, other issues remain. A study from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) this week claimed that 5,500 rail jobs had gone on the Great Western franchise in the past three years. The union said these were down to staff shortages and “a culture of job hoarding which saps the energy of staff”.

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