Saturday, December 05, 2009

Why privatised railways offer passengers less freedom

Today's Leicester Mercury reports:
Fare-dodgers will be hit by new penalties if they board a train without a valid ticket.
East Midlands Trains is introducing a new penalty fares system on Monday.
Individuals travelling without a valid ticket for their journey face a penalty fare of £20 or twice the full single fare – whichever is the greater amount – to the next station at which the train stops.
We are all against fare dodgers, but there is a little more to this story than that.

Because the train operating companies have had to agree to pay the government huge premiums to run the service. This has led to cuts in staffing levels, but it has also led to an enforced recasting of the way the public uses the railways.

In particular, it is becoming increasingly difficult to do what generations of passengers have taken for granted: turn up at a railway station a few minutes before the train you want departs and buy a ticket at a reasonable price. Either you order your ticket in advance or you pay through the nose: no wonder they have problems with people not paying.

It is one of the ironies that archetypal institutions of the free market system, such as fast food restaurants, require us to behave in a very disciplined manner if they are to operate at all. When Starbucks came to Market Harborough they brought leaflets telling us the language we should use to order our coffee.

For a picture of how private rail companies ought to operate, read Euan Ferguson on the Wrexham, Shropshire & Marylebone Railway:
'Now, the train's going to be moving off in that direction," says the guard, bending solicitously over a sweet little bundle of embroidered tea cosies which turned out to be a shawl wrapped around a lady of rather more than a certain age. "Do you want to go to the opposite seat, face forward, see the countryside? Oh, don't worry about the ticket stuff; we'll get that sorted later.
Why can't we all pay on the train without being treated like criminals?


Anonymous said...

Starbucks has always seemed quite pretentious to me, though. Then again, all 'coffee houses' seem that way to me. Give me a pub with an nice blonde behind the bar anyday.

Tristan said...

But these are not institutions of a free market system, they're institutions of state capitalism which has little to do with free markets and a lot to do with state intervention.

Its like saying the KGB was an institution of Bakunin's communism.

And the railways aren't privatised - the government is ever present in their running and picks up the tab when things go wrong.

crewegwyn said...

Oh dear; that Guard (sorry Conductor, sorry Train Manager, sorry .. whatever they're called this week) could get into trouble for suggesting somebody might prefer to travel 'facing direction of travel'.

Statistically, more dangerous than 'back to direction of travel'.

I see a court case coming on !!!

Seriously, good posting.

Kevin Boatang said...

As Tristan said, this is not a free market system.

Trains are natural monopolies that should be in private rather than state hands, but in a far more accountable way. The way their fare increases are allowed is a farce for instance.

The private system workd perfectly well in other countries, such as Switzerland, and as usual it is only here where we have such issues with it. To be fare (oh dear) though, the trains are vastly better and more reliable now then they ever were.