Gale's View - Rail Fares
March 12th 2014
At a “Leaders Meeting” convened at County Hall last week between Kent County Council, the Leaders of City and District authorities and Kent`s Members of Parliament, the thorny issue of rail fares was raised.
It is the view of County Hall, and one which I not only share but have asserted myself on a number of occasions, that if the East of the County is going to play its part in providing new homes to meet the ever-growing demand for houses in the South East, and if the families of those who occupy the new homes are going to have the jobs that will pay the mortgages and the bills, then it is likely that many will need to commute both within Kent and very probably to London. That economic regeneration is going to be stifled if people cannot afford to get to work because of unacceptably high rail fares.
One of my colleagues complained recently of the cost of High-Speed rail from a South Coast town to London. Constituents of mine pay the same, or more, for a slow-speed service that crawls from Margate and Herne Bay into Cannon Street or Victoria. That is not going to boost the attractiveness of East Kent as a residential area of choice for many people.
Ministers, and the Press, are quick to refer to the “transformational high-speed rail service” as if it serves the whole County and, on the back of this Government and the Train Operating Company tries to justify season-ticket rail fares that can amount, after tax (because travel to work costs are not, of course, tax-deductible) to as much as a third of take-home pay. Some will point to “privatisation” as the root of all railway evil but it is certainly the case that investment in rolling stock has grown, as have the numbers of travelling public, since the shackles of State control were removed from the railways. Fares on the Kent Coast Line have risen, though, over the past ten years, in disproportion to those elsewhere. And there has been little or no betterment in the service or in the railway infrastructure that is the responsibility of Network Rail. Promises have been made by the latter (particularly in relation to new track and signalling) that have simply not been kept. As a consequence, those who are now compelled to travel from East Kent to London are, I contend, still paying much more for less in spite of a few cosmetic “improvements”. Journeys take too long, remain unreliable and are too expensive.
It is easy to kick Southeastern trains – and they certainly have a considerable amount to answer for – but there is a bigger picture that involves Network Rail and Central Government. I happen to be a supporter of High Speed Two because I believe that, at almost whatever cost (and it is a racing certainty that it will be higher than that estimated) it is time that we built a 21st-Century railway to meet the needs of tomorrow`s travelling public. But just before we embark upon that project we must, instead of trying to pretend that the service is finished, complete High Speed One. We must build the vital Manston Parkway Station without which the potential of the regional airport will not be realised, and, above all, we must grapple with a fare structure that is at present continuing to deter much needed investment and house-building in East Kent. Although SouthEastern`s franchise is to be renewed until 2018 the general franchise review being conducted by the Department for Transport offers the opportunity to define new terms and conditions and to exercise fresh controls over season ticket prices. In the interests of a long-suffering commuting public that opportunity must not be lost.