In the media there has been a great deal of fuss and comment on the subject of rail fares and pricing. As this involves commuter fares along with others, a great deal of it has concentrated on situations in the South East, but many other urban areas are affected. It is a difficult business and with a long history.
For the backdrop to this post the Wikipedia article “Railway Regulation Act 1844” is in mind. It is concise and says what it has to say. What it means that is the issue of what services may be provided and at what price began in the earliest years of the railways as a key part of mass transit.
One aspect of the 1844 Act was that the provision for a “Parliamentary Fare” for the Third Class passengers was intended to enable the lower classes to be able to afford to travel quickly in order to seek work. If one penny a mile seems very cheap the fact is it wasn’t.
Taking typical working men’s pay at the time to travel any distance would involve quite a few shillings. For example, Liverpool to
Manchester might cost around three shillings
or Birmingham to around six shillings. The wage would depend on the skills of the
worker, but either would make a large hole in or cost all of a week’s earnings. Manchester
The picture above, taken at Manchester Victoria Station in 1928 offers a real cut price bargain for the time, five shillings return for a day out. However, given what I know about my parents incomes around that time, again this is about half my mothers weekly pay and a quarter of my father’s.
It is arguable what these figures might mean in today’s money given that the current historical comparisons depend on spending and other liabilities that can be very different but you could be looking at a rough equivalent of five shillings being about £100. This, I stress, is the cut price special fare so imagine what the “normal” fares were like.
But those were the days when passenger revenues were only a part of overall revenue. The railways were common carriers and moved almost all the freight for any distance. Also they moved nearly all the post and parcels. The amount of the basic fuel, coal, was huge and nearly all went by rail.
This is no longer the case. There is some freight and there are always hopes to increase it. Now the railways depend on passenger revenues. Also, not only is the pricing complex but so is the structure and nature of state support. Then the companies decided what locomotives and carriages they might have. Now the government does.
During the 1950’s my experience was direct working on the platform and in the parcel’s office as well as travelling a good deal. It certainly wasn’t cheap and any journey of distance was a major budget item. Also, if you needed to order goods that came by rail, this could add significantly to the cost.
But like in many other spheres we have come to view the railways as something that “ought” to be cheap and almost in a way part of the benefits system. The level of subsidy is substantial and we now have almost a “right” to travel where and when we want to, irrespective of the weather or need, the demand is to keep fares down and the subsidies up.
A railway is a high expense piece of social kit. It requires a great deal of outlay to create, which may or may not yield a return. Many a company in the 19th Century went broke. It is high maintenance. It has to have staff and systems that are costly in turn. It requires continual renewal.
All in all, given that it is almost solely passenger provision the real fare pricings to cover both revenue and capital costs would mean far higher fare levels than often apply today. Certainly, some of the commuter fares are beginning to look serious but that is what it costs.
Given that the financial and social policies of recent governments have had the effect of driving a large part of the middling income groups out of the capital to live in areas with more affordable housing whiles at the same time increasing the subsidies to the rail services provided, something sometime had to give.
Could the train carrying the costs and pricing problems be about to hit the buffers?