Trains
Photo: AndrewHA’s

By Jake George

Those who travel home for the holidays will likely rely on public transport to get them there. Owning a car is, cost-wise, out of the question, given the price of insurance and all other amenities that require incurring vast depletions to our inflexible student budgets.

That’ll have to wait until after uni when the money will presumably be rolling in. Enough moaning, then, about how skint and how hard done by we are, as we look at the alternatives to driving.

It was recently announced that train fares will rise, yet again, above the rate of inflation. This will be the tenth year running that has occurred. It’s that same issue that just keeps popping up; things are becoming too expensive. Necessities like transport in particular. One should expect a better, improved service from the companies that must surely be raking in the cash from passengers and the government alike.

But no, the rail operators claim they’re not making any money. After government and administrative fees, their profits are apparently flat-lining, only just breaking even. This unapologetic explanation makes it look as though the likes of First Great Western and Virgin Trains are attempting to pull a ‘Starbucks’. Although in Starbucks’ case, the scale of responsibility was quite measurable.

Starbucks was guilty of having used evasive accounting techniques, so when they presented their books to the tax man – and those of sister/parent companies – it looked as though they weren’t making any money, when in fact they made multiple billions of profit and paid a mere £8 million in tax. I can’t blame the likes of FGW of the same thing, but something fishy is going on. Bloating fares in addition to increasing passenger numbers must surely mean greater revenues/profits, mustn’t it?

Several a new layers of administration have been introduced since privatisation, which partly is behind the obscure contracts with hidden fees and shrunken small-print.  Taxpayers must continue to subsidise the train companies for the service to maintain it and that’s partly the reason for such impressive legal gymnastics.

Critics point out that the vast sums of money pouring into these companies often fail to make it to the frontline in terms of wages and upgrades. Some have called for a reduction in the rail networks bureaucracy, an expensive, unyielding machine that exists solely to perpetuate its own existence.

I’m a regular user of trains, and while I love the service and experience, I worry that these fare rises will only increase the squeeze on those with low incomes, students in particular, and that a crowding out will occur. For how much longer can passenger numbers continue to rise in spite of rising fares?

Naturally, people who commute will rely on trains to get them to work, so more and more of the very wage that enables them to travel to get to work is being guzzled ever rapidly. From experience, I know that in order to get a cheap fare, you have to put up with a journey that makes truckloads of stops, often having to go ‘via’ somewhere that is totally in the wrong direction to where you are travelling.

Hop onto a train you (innocently) suspect isn’t covered by your ticket, and you risk being caught and fined by the ticket inspector, who more often than not, will come down on you like a train coming off the rails.

Travelling by coach is nothing of the same experience. You look out of the window and see the same scenes and places you would do as if you were in a car. You can catch a train from Temple Meads, and, if you book early enough, get to Cardiff, Exeter, and Bath for less than a fiver.

The rail network is a national treasure; it must remain an affordable, accessible mode of transport, an invaluable service that brings us together through our desire to get places and be somewhere: its preservation is of unrivalled importance. For students, whose freedom is probably best measured by their ability to travel, these ever increasing fares are prophesising a grim future for cheap public transport.