This morning I watched the commons ‘Urgent question’ on the East Coast main line. For the last 5 years the line has been operated by East Coast, a publically owned company. It was always planned to re-privatise the line by December 2013, even though that has failed twice before. Now the Conservatives have sold off the franchise to Stagecoach/Virgin Rail.
The Conservatives say this will provide more frequent services with links to more stations, including a direct line to Huddersfield for the first time since the 60s. Huddersfield is my home town and where I return to visit my parents, and so this will directly affect me.
Labour argue that the government should not be switching from a successful publically owned service to a privately owned one when private franchises have failed twice previously on this line. They questioned why the East Coast Company were not even allowed to bid for the franchise. There were also two mentions of the very high fares on Virgin lines on the west coast.
I’m not going to argue for or against this privatisation. Privatisation generally syphons money out of the public sector, and while people use efficiency as an argument, it’s more often a symptom of bad politics and management rather than a fundamental problem with public services. In this case, I don’t know enough about both sides of the argument to make a compelling case.
However, I did want to fact-check Labour’s ‘high fares on Virgin West Coast’ argument. I have travelled several times from London to both Birmingham and Wakefield. Usually I get the (cheaper but slower) Chiltern Railways service to Birmingham, and the East Coast service to Wakefield. I know how expensive the East Coast service is, so found it hard to comprehend the West coast Virgin service could be even more expensive. Time for some Maths.
Let’s say I want to travel from London to Birmingham or Leeds at around 8:00 tomorrow morning and return around 17:00. I’m going to select the ‘Anytime’ fares on both services, as these are without restrictions or offers.
The Virgin service to Birmingham takes 1h24m and costs £82 each way, £164 total. That’s 99.81 miles between Euston and New Street as the crow flies, which works out as 82p a mile and 50.5s a mile.
The East Coast service to Leeds takes 2h15m and costs £124.50 each way, £249 total. That’s 167.48 miles between Kings Cross and Leeds, which works out as 74p a mile and 48.4s a mile.
So the publically owned East Coast service does work out cheaper, but only 10% less than the Virgin service. It’s also slightly faster. Either way you look at it, these are still very high fares. For comparison, it’s £124 return to fly direct from Heathrow to Leeds Bradford with BA, and it only takes an hour. Our rail fares in the UK are considerable higher than Europe.
If we are to encourage train travel in this country and better connect the north, we can’t keep raising fares every year when they are already so high. Thankfully the government froze fairs for 2015, although that still means they will be rising 2.5% with inflation. Let’s see if the same happens in 2016 after the election.
Inset image: Telegraph