Why are UK train fares so expensive? We ask an expert

·3 min read

Last month, it was announced that rail fares would rise in March – again. But why are UK train tickets so expensive? I asked Cat Hobbs, the founder of We Own It, a group campaigning for public ownership of the railways.

I recently got married in Scotland, and it took eight hours to drive my bickering family up there. It was cheaper to do that – and pay for the therapy afterwards – than all take the train. Why do some experts say our trains are cheap?
Some of our advance tickets are cheap, but our walk-on fares are expensive. A ticket from London Paddington to Bristol in 1995 was £28.50. If the price had increased with inflation, it would be double – but it can go as high as £115. The 2011 McNulty report found that the UK’s fares cost roughly 30% more than those of other railways in Europe. And our government is obsessed with passengers footing the bill.

The government is quite ideologically driven …
Absolutely. Rail is a natural monopoly. When you’re standing on a platform, you don’t have consumer choice. We need profits reinvested. The rolling stock companies are a scandal.

Rolling what?
Rolling stock companies own the physical trains and lend their “sets” out to operators. During the pandemic, rolling stock companies have paid out a billion pounds to their shareholders.

Why are our costs so high?
It’s the mess of our system: too many companies, arguing over who should be fined if a train is late. And the government refuses to invest properly. At one point during the pandemic, passenger numbers dropped to 1872 levels. The numbers haven’t recovered, but the government’s talking about cutting rail spending. Train travel is already unreliable; it will get worse.

Do British passengers effectively subsidise European rail travel?
Yes. Ironically, some companies introduced through privatisation are state owned. So Arriva is owned by the German state and Abellio the Dutch. They make a profit in Britain and return it to their own countries’ railways. You know, when I get interviewed, people always ask about the soggy sandwiches of British Rail.

Wait, we had sandwiches on trains? So cool! Sorry to be the 90s kid, but the only sandwich on my trains is a half-eaten Pret …
I only remember British Rail a little, certainly not enough to assess the sandwiches, but it was chronically underfunded. Since then, the government’s actually increased railway spend but it’s been flowing into the pockets of shareholders.

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If we had a spare billion, I’m sure we could do better sandwiches. The public want the railway back, right?
Yes – 64% of us do, and the majority of Conservative voters. Boris Johnson is talking about rail reform – they’re calling the replacement for Network Rail “Great British Railways” – but it’s the same privatised system repackaged.

Let me guess, a shiny new logo?
There is! The government will be in charge of planning, but it’ll still be private companies implementing it, and they’ll sent profits to shareholders. And if they don’t make any profit, the government will bail them out. Private companies want steady revenue, they don’t want to innovate. Why on earth can’t we just do public ownership?