« Defining "Britishness" | Main | Old Houses »

January 21, 2006

London Transport (an oxymoron)

We've been warned in the papers over the last few days that train companies in the UK are campaigning to be allowed to set their own fares. Their reasons sound quite sensible - they want to raise more money to improve service and the government won't have to subsidise them as heavily in future. It sounds absolutely great - finally, privatisation will start to work and all of that free market stuff will improve consumer choice, right?

One example given by the papers is that a cheap day return fare between London and Manchester, which currently costs around GBP 35.00, will be raised to over GBP 200.00. That's not a big deal if you don't want to go to Manchester, but considering that there are coach companies offering the same trip for less than GBP 35.00 and that a train can carry as much as 12 times as many people, GBP 200.00 seems a bit like profiteering.

It gets worse though...

What about all of the people who can't afford to live in London? They commute from Reading, Maidstone, Southend and even Brighton. Will they be paying GBP 100.00 a day? Most Londoners don't even earn that much in two days. Will employers subsidise or pay for employees to get to work? Will they raise salaries to compensate? Of course not. We all know that increases in salaries lead to inflation - or at least that's what I'm always told when I ask for a raise! Seriously though, a salary hike for everyone in London wouldn't solve anything. The supply of homes isn't meeting demand and the government isn't interested in addressing the problem.

I currently pay one tenth of my post-tax salary to the train companies for the privilege of getting to work. I can expect 7/10ths of my salary to be poured into the black hole that is rented accommodation (as and when I have enough money for a deposit on a flat plus the first month's rent). That includes council tax and amenities. That means that approximately 8/10ths of my salary is already paid out on a place to sleep and a means of getting to work. The rest of my income having to go on health insurance and a pension, despite the fact that I pay over GBP 200 in National Insurance to pay for other people's pensions and unemployment benefits is a topic for another day.

So you can see the problem - where is extra money for transport going to come from if fares keep rising?

Some won't have any choice but to slip further and further down the social scale. Most cleaners already live in social housing and work as close to home as possible to avoid wiping out nearly an hour's pay on transport costs. Any fare rise will reduce their take home pay quite sharply. Some young people get stuck at the bottom of the organisational ladder and don't make enough money to save. If it now costs them more to leave London they're doubly trapped.

A surprisingly large number of people who work in London are already struggling to make some sort of life for themselves. We're "too well off" to be given any benefits or housing assistance and too poor to provide what the state provides for those poorer than us for ourselves. People who fall into this category are the most likely to leave - taking the IT, admin and customer service skills that the city needs but won't pay for with them.

My final point is that the transport companies can raise fares as much as they like, but they will never offer a good service as long as they refuse to employ conductors on buses and ticket inspectors on trains. The current practice is to send a gang of ticket inspectors to various train stations, probably for their own safety - at least I would find that understandable. It could also be because the trains they want to check on are too packed for anyone to move through the train checking tickets, but it's more likely that the inspectors have had too many people accost them about the price of the poor service. Their retreat from trains and buses allows people to get away with truly awful behaviour.

For example, I got on a bus this evening (shortly after 9pm), which contained the following:

A gang of young men rolling up a spliff with the most powerful marijuana I've ever smelt. Plenty of people were looking at them disapprovingly, but no one was brave enough to say anything (least of all me).

Another gang of young men who drank enough spirits in their short journey to cause them to fall down the stairs of the bus when they nearly missed their stop. (Alcohol is banned on buses).

So much graffiti scratched into the glass windows that I had trouble seeing where we were and where we were going.

A gang of teenagers arguing loudly - not terrible, but a bit annoying.

And worst of all, having paid GBP 3.00 for a round trip of less than 4 miles (in a packed bus), 2 people barged onto the bus as I got off and tried to hide out of sight of the driver.

The driver saw them, but he's just one man and isn't allowed to leave his cab. His choices are either to refuse to move the bus until they leave, delaying and annoying a double-decker bus full of people, or ignore them and drive on. A second uniform stood at the second set of doors would have made them think twice.

Just one man at Elephant & Castle Underground station manages to keep the crowds calm in the morning. He has colleagues quietly manning the ticket barriers, but the fact that he is there to politely remind people to be more considerate about using the lifts makes everyone's journey easier. If people like him were employed to patrol trains and buses, the service would improve immediately. I certainly notice the difference when he's not on the morning shift.

So, the answer for transport companies wanting to make more money is to employ enforcers on every train. Make sure that all of your security cameras work and don't leave your drivers alone in a bus on a route that routinely attracts fare dodgers and graffiti artists. If safety is a concern, hire ex-soldiers instead. I'll guarantee there'll be a 0% reoffence rate. I'll bet that once you make fare dodging difficult and scary, your revenues will increase without squeezing your honest, law-abiding customers. Surely the money that bus and train companies would save on constantly replacing windows alone would pay for the staff?

Posted by The Postulant at January 21, 2006 10:10 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry: