Squeezing rail commuters like this could be electoral suicide. If Mr Osborne has any sense, he’ll think again

For nine successive years, the cost of rail fares has increased by more than the rate of inflation.

During that  period, fares have risen three times faster than incomes.

Britain now has the most expensive rail network in Europe, with the burden falling most heavily on commuters, who cannot take advantage of cheaper off-peak fares. Many of these hard-pressed souls are squeezed into carriages like cattle, and count themselves fortunate to find a seat.

So what does the Government do? At a time when real take-home pay is falling more quickly than at any time in living memory, it announces that from next January rail fares will rise by an average of 6.2 per cent in England, which is more than twice the rate of inflation.

Passengers going through Ticket Barriers at Paddington Station

Long suffering: The excessive costs, instead of being rooted out by the Government and the train operators and Network Rail, are being borne by the unfortunate rail user

Who else in the private sector would dare to push up prices by such a whacking amount in the middle of a recession? Some fares could increase by as much as 11 per cent, though train companies would supposedly have to offer cheaper fares elsewhere by way of compensation.

For millions of commuters, these punishing extra charges will be barely supportable. Most of them haven’t got the option of driving or going by bus at the time of day when they have to travel. They are a captive audience, exploited by the Government and the train operators.

Let me humbly suggest that unless the Chancellor, George Osborne, has a last-minute change of mind, as he is entitled to do, many rail users, and even some non-rail users, will think that the Government is no better than a mean-spirited donkey owner who continues to lash his overladen and tottering beast.

Like its predecessor, it is shifting the burden of subsidising the railways from the taxpayer to the rail traveller. In principle, this is probably a good thing, since its seems inequitable for the majority of the population, which seldom or never travels by train, to subsidise the minority which  regularly does.

Blow: Sir Richard Branson boarding a Virgin train, and his company has today lost its West Coast franchise

Privatisation: Is bigger better? Sir Richard Branson has threatened to withdraw from the rail industry after his company lost its West Coast franchise

But the process of shifting the burden is taking place at such a relentlessly rapid pace that regular rail users rightly feel penalised. Moreover, this process is not accompanied by any increases in efficiency among the train operators or Network Rail, which owns and runs the track.

This is the untold story of rail privatisation. In some respects it has provided a better service, and it has succeeded in attracting many more passengers to the railways, especially at  off-peak times.

But privatisation has not delivered the greater efficiencies it was supposed to.

According to an official report by Sir Roy McNulty published last year, the costs of transporting one passenger for a mile have not gone down since the bad old days of British Rail, which was privatised in the mid-Nineties.

His report contended that the cost of running the railways in Britain should between  20 to 30 per cent lower. It identified an ‘efficiency gap of 40 per cent’ in comparison with the train systems of four other European countries.

In other words, our privatised rail network, though delivering in many respects a better service than the unlamented British Rail, is still much more expensive to run than it should be. And these excessive costs, instead of being rooted out by the Government and the train operators and Network Rail, are being borne by the unfortunate rail user.

Sir Roy highlighted antiquated rest-break agreements which lead to many drivers spending  most of their working time not driving trains. Replacing a common-or-garden ticket machine involves ‘at least ten decision-making stages’, he maintained.

Many inefficiencies are fostered by the plethora of tiny train operators, which are unable to benefit from economies of scale because they are so small. Management in many of these companies is weak.

Then there is the problem of Network Rail, a government quango with in-built inefficiencies. The idea of a separate company being responsible for the track — originally known as Railtrack — was the most flawed aspect of the partly botched rail privatisation pushed through by the John Major Government.

It would have been far preferable to have had a smaller number of operators taking responsibility for the track on which their own trains ran, which was the state of affairs before the railways were nationalised in 1947. Instead, there are now costly disputes between the train companies and Network Rail, of which well-paid lawyers are the only beneficiaries.

As in other unaccountable quangos, the bosses who run Network Rail feather their own nests. Last month, a leaked letter from the company’s remuneration committee revealed that it is trying to push through a long-term bonus scheme worth £1.7 million for five directors, alongside annual bonuses of up to 60 per cent of salary.

The committee also planned to pay three directors ‘golden handcuff’ payments of £300,000 each to stop them being poached by rival firms. Where might these firms be?

A commuter into London who is standing while being jostled on an overcrowded train, despite having paid several thousand pounds for a season ticket, may justifiably feel that rather than far from being showered with bonuses, these rail bosses should be put in the stocks and pelted with rotten eggs.

Network Rail: A government quango with in-built inefficiencies where the bosses make sure to feather their own nests

Network Rail: A government quango with in-built inefficiencies where the bosses make sure to feather their own nests

Don’t imagine that I mourn British Rail, as some people with chronic amnesia appear to do. I can remember old and dirty trains smelling of cigarettes, with all the suspension of a Chieftain tank, that were even less punctual than their modern counterparts.

Time for a U-Turn: George Osbourne would be wise to halt the proposed fare increases which will further batter commuters

Time for a U-Turn: George Osbourne would be wise to halt the proposed fare increases which will further batter commuters

And we should congratulate the Government for its recent announcement of a £9 billion investment programme in our railways, provided the money is well spent. Nor can there be any doubt that in recent years the safety record of our railways has steadily improved.

But as a result of the mistakes of privatisation, year after year the poor rail user is being asked to shoulder costs which the rail companies are reluctant or unable to expunge.

By the way, in principle it is a good thing that FirstGroup should have won the franchise over the existing operator Virgin Trains to run the West Coast mainline franchise — but only if it really does offer a better service. In that case, competition will have worked.

The question is whether the Government has made a competent assessment of the rival bids. The even bigger question is whether it is simply presiding over an inadequately privatised rail system, or whether it has the strength of mind to make privatisation work more effectively.

Even if we were enjoying the best of times economically, it would be a stretch to ask rail users to accept a hike of twice the rate of inflation after years of inexorable increases.

As these are the very worst of times, it would be punitive to squeeze commuters yet again, besides taking money out of people’s pockets that could be spent in other ways more profitable to our flagging economy. It might also be electoral suicide. If George Osborne has any sense, he will think again.