Subsidies have more or less doubled in real terms since privatisation © PA
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Two sides cling implacably to opposing arguments in the face of data that support neither case. But this is not Leave versus Remain. It is the annual brouhaha over how much it costs to ride a train in Britain.
Earlier this week, the Rail Delivery Group said regulated train fares, which include season tickets, would rise 3.4 per cent in January. Cue the customary howls of outrage from commuting types who work at national newspapers and broadcasters. The well-rehearsed riposte is that the industry is delivering record investment and that state subsidies are falling as fare payers increasingly fund the railways.
Both claims are dubious. Regulated standard-class fares in the London area actually fell for much of the noughties. They have risen about 6 per cent more than retail prices since 2009 — annoying, for sure, but not exactly the larceny portrayed.
Subsidies have more or less doubled in real terms since privatisation. That is roughly in line with the increase in passenger journeys. Within the total, train operators are now contributors to the Treasury but subsidies to Network Rail have ballooned. The much-vaunted capital spending is funded largely by borrowing; the infrastructure owner’s debt is £46bn.
Nor is rail operation the gravy train of old. Operating margins are below 5 per cent. UK companies are turning sceptical; National Express no longer runs UK trains, while Stagecoach recently withdrew early from a key intercity franchise. The four-fifths of Britons who drive to work must be wondering what all the fuss is about.
The Lex team is interested in hearing more from readers. Can a sustainable business model for private train operation ever be found? Please tell us what you think in the comments section below