For everybody reading this post on East of the M60, a Happy New Year. If you’ve renewed your rail or tram season ticket, it may be worth getting your mortgage sorted out (but not until you’ve read this).
Along with the usual stories from the Public Records Office, the announcement of rail fare rises has become an annual event on this septic isle. As usual, mid-market newspapers complain about the effects of a 5 – 10% increase on season tickets. Each year, they forget that bus fares rise by a similar amount or more outside London and Northern Ireland.
Unlike rail season tickets, 10 – 15% increases in single bus fares barely make a sentence, let alone the Leader Comment. They might make the local press and attract the ire of letter writers throughout the UK. In the bus industry, there doesn’t seem to be as much of an internal market compared with our railways. The overheads of our railway network include a multiplicity of things other than the profit and loss of its services. These also include:
- The cost of hiring rolling stock: most rail franchises lease their trains from banks. Some, like First/Keolis Transpennine Express own their rolling stock;
- Preserving a national ticketing network: one body, the Rail Settlement Plan, makes all the complex calculations as to which franchisee(s) or Open Access operators get a cut from a given journey;
- The maintenance of stations and infrastructure: your rail operator pays Network Rail x amount for the right to use your tracks, viaducts, tunnels, signalling, etc;
- Making a few lawyers pretty fat: case in point, the recent hullabaloo regarding FirstGroup and Virgin over the West Coast Main Line franchise;
- Labour costs: in addition to the rail operators’ and Network Rail employed staff, this also include subcontractors. Yes, your System One CountyCard goes some way to making sure G4S man the barriers at Manchester Piccadilly or Victoria railway stations.
Money well spent? If it means enhanced information at all stations, being able to check the train times on your computer or mobile device, then ‘yes’. Does the money make for a more reliable service? That cannot always be guaranteed, but the average rail passenger would seethe if his or her recently risen season ticket pays for a squeezed to high heaven 2-car Pacer unit (and believe me, as a one-time regular commuter, I have seen more than enough in my time).
It is claimed that the rises will fund infrastructural improvements. True, but shifting the burden directly to rail users is anathema to the pluralist notion of greater funding through direct taxation. In the last decade – even under the last Labour Government – the burden has shifted to rail passengers, based on the premise that non-rail users are reluctant to subsidise their rail using fellows. Supposing we took a similar attitude to motorists (i.e. motorway tolls, congestion charging, high parking rates), there would be an outcry the size of St. Petersburg, backed by the car-loving popular press.
As a public transport user myself, I am happy with recent improvements to date at Stalybridge railway station. Ditto the above with the new buses on the 409, 419, 41 and 219 routes and the Metrolink extensions. Even so, there is room for improvement: Northern Rail could do with some brand new trains for a start, and ticket office hours should be maintained at present levels or improved upon.
It is said that the original British Rail saw more affordable trains and more reliable services. Amid the rose tinted spectacles, it is conveniently forgotten that Greater Manchester’s local passengers didn’t do too well under BR till the mid to late-1980s. For a start, the Huddersfield – Manchester Victoria all stations service – now one of the Greater Manchester City Area’s most busiest routes – was only available in peak hours till 1991 (only Stalybridge had an all day service between Victoria, Piccadilly from 1989, and Huddersfield and the rest of Yorkshire). By the end of the 1980s, a great many local services were operated by ‘Heritage DMUs’ – some of which compensating for broken down Pacer units.
Is the above any wonder why GMPTE wanted to plug away with light rail, resulting in today’s Metrolink services? Another inconvenient truth. Pre-Metrolink, the Bury – Manchester Victoria service only had an half hourly frequency, operated by 2 or 4 car third rail electric trains. Yet we moan, justifiably so or otherwise. Ask yourself: how much is a decent and secure parking space per day in Central Manchester?
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Summary: Rail and Tram Fare Rises in Greater Manchester:
- Metrolink: 4.2% average;
- First/Keolis Transpennine Express, Northern Rail: 4.2% increase on ordinary fares.
The average rise on the Metrolink is consistent with National Rail’s regulated fares. Even so, some fares rose higher than average, to allow for a simplification in fare stages. On the other side of the Pennines, passengers within the Metro West Yorkshire boundary saw an increase of 6.2%. It is also worth noting that some off-peak fares rose by a greater margin than the 4.2% cap used on regulated fares.
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Let’s Compare, Our Unfair Fares…
For the purpose of this section, I will cover four journeys (short distance refers to any journey 10 miles or less):
- A short distance cross-boundary journey (Littleborough – Walsden);
- A short distance journey within the TfGM boundary (Gorton – Manchester);
- A medium distance cross-boundary journey (Huddersfield – Stalybridge, 17.75 – 20 miles);
- A medium distance journey within the TfGM boundary (Manchester – Altrincham, 9.5 – 12 miles).
I shall compare all journeys with the price of the equivalent journey by car. Where applicable, with other methods of public transport.
For my car, I shall use a 2008 Ford Ka as my example. The supermini hatchback has a very reasonable 45 mpg fuel consumption and 1.3 litre engine, which is a good option if you happen to be the sole driver. The petrol price used to measure that option is 130p per litre, which at this moment is the latest forecourt price from Stalybridge’s TESCO filling station.
1. Littleborough – Walsden:
The journey between the above points is only 4 miles long, but what a scenic 4 miles it is! Owing to the local geology, there is little difference between road and rail journey times in good conditions as road, rail and canal are hemmed in the same valley.
- Bus: 589/590 routes, £4.60, First West Yorkshire FirstDay (or £3.70, Huddersfield – Calderdale FirstDay, off-peak);
- Car: 54p (£1.08 return);
- Taxi: £8.40 (£16.80 return);
- Train: £3.40 (£3.10, off-peak return).
The bus not only compares well with the rail fare, but also offers the passenger a wealth of other journey options beyond Walsden making it a cheaper though slower option. Besides making a modest saving on two single fares, he or she can continue towards Leeds, Bradford (first two places on full FirstDay West Yorkshire ticket) and Holmfirth as well as Halifax.
If your sole journey is between Littleborough and Walsden, those fringe benefits may be lost on you, as the car is a cheaper option at a piffling return journey of £1.08 (great if you’re heading off to the Gordon Rigg Garden Centre for the carriage of bulky goods). Only walking is cheaper – even with bottle of water purchased from the Co-op in Littleborough.
If you wish to splash the cash, the equivalent taxi fare is £16.80 return. In spite of this, the carriage of four persons there and back is only a little dearer than equivalent bus and train fares.
2. Gorton – Manchester:
Gorton is well connected by local buses, either by the 219/220/221 on Ashton Old Road in nearby Openshaw, or the 201/203 – 207 routes along Hyde Road. Theoretically, the journey to Manchester by road should be quite nippy, but peak hour traffic – and bottlenecks caused by the town’s TESCO Extra store even outside peak hours – makes for zombie style journey times. Luckily, Gortonians also have the joys of a half hourly train service from Hadfield or Ashburys. Or hourly trains from Belle Vue.
- Bus: £3.90 (Stagecoach Manchester DayRider ticket);
- Car: 59p (£1.18 return);
- Taxi: £10.25 (£20.50 return);
- Train: £3.10 return (or £1.80, off-peak return, 90p Evening Return);
As with the First West Yorkshire ticket, Stagecoach Manchester’s DayRider ticket is best enjoyed over a wider area than a modest journey. Even so, the £3.90 price tag still makes for a modest saving on two single adult fares on the short return journey.
Far and away, the car offers the cheapest journey, but an almighty sting in the tail hits our motorist by means of Manchester’s high parking rates. Long stay rate at a National Car Parks multi storey is around £15.00. You can get a Manchester Megarider for less than that on the 201 – and get a week’s travel aboard all Stagecoach Manchester routes from Glossop to Partington.
By train, the £3.10 return is cheaper than two singles aboard Stagecoach’s routes, making that a better option for occasional travellers. As for the £1.80 return, very good indeed, and even better still at 90p for an Evening Return (cheaper than the car!).
The taxi is our most expensive option, particularly if you’re the sole passenger at £10.25 one way. Again, a good option if there’s four in the taxi, though nowhere near as good value as the local train services.
3. Huddersfield – Stalybridge:
Over such a modest distance, the journey from Huddersfield to Stalybridge by rail doesn’t come cheap at all, but its twice hourly frequency is superior to some local bus services within the town centre. Much of the expense is due to an unsubsidised section between Greenfield and Marsden. As a consequence, the rail fare between the two points is expensive enough to make a taxi, shared with three other passengers, a more viable alternative.
- Bus: £4.50 (FirstDay ticket);
- Car: £2.65 one way (£5.30 return);
- Train: £12.10 (or £10.60, off-peak return);
For speed, the bus is a non-starter, unless you can synchronise your times well enough, or decide to break your journey at a desirable pub en route. Using this mode warrants catching the 353 or 354 to Stalybridge town centre from Uppermill, after changing at The Commercial Hotel stop for the 184 from Huddersfield. Whereas the 353/354 operate a full time service, there are no 184s to and from Huddersfield after 6pm.
The second longest journey time is by car. In optimum conditions, the journey should take 42 minutes. It is – though a bit risky in winter weather – the cheapest option at £5.30 return. Supposing we want to use a car park in Stalybridge town centre for four hours, it’s either another £3.50, free at the railway station (if you’re lucky!), or TESCO (two hours or less).
4. Manchester – Altrincham:
Altrincham is probably one of Greater Manchester’s best connected towns with three modes of public transport at one’s disposal. Besides the tram, there is also a hourly service to Chester via Knutsford and Northwich, or Stockport in the opposite direction. A more leisurely option, in terms of the 16, 18 and 263 bus routes are also available (butties or a good digital device may be required).
- Bus: £4.20 (Arriva North West 16/263 services, Manchester Day Saver ticket) or £5.00 (System One Any Bus Day Saver);
- Car: £1.42 (£2.84 return);
- Train: £6.10 return (or £3.80, off-peak return);
- Tram: £6.20 return.
Once again, the car came out as the cheapest mode of transport to Altrincham. Car parking starts from 10p for an hour’s parking on Oakfield Road or Regent Road. However, long stay parking for over 6 hours (akin to a typical full time work day) is £6.00. Therefore on that note, the cheapest way from Manchester to Altrincham, if you work full time (and not the proud owner of a company space), is on Arriva’s 263 service. If speed matters, the train or tram are equally viable – and more so after 0930 on weekdays, or all day weekends and bank holidays.
The 263 may be frequent, but it’s a slower option, taking 50 – 70 minutes to get to Altrincham. On public transport, it has the cheapest peak hour fare, with the difference between buying a Metrolink ticket and Arriva’s Manchester Day Saver equal enough to the price of a sausage barm.
Rail users can make a dramatic saving by choosing the 1017 train from Manchester Piccadilly, with a generous discount on the peak hour return fare of £6.10.
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Endword: Is The Car Really As Cheap As We Think?
It is quite lazy to see the car as a cheap option. When we see it as a cheap option, we think of the petrol prices, but disregard the other costs of car ownership. With petrol prices fluctuating faster than a reality TV show member’s dance moves, on ice or sprung floor, it seems as if some people have taken notice. As a consequence, they are right to criticise recent fare rises. Motorists feel they are being hammered by fuel prices: very true in some respects, but hardly the full picture till parking rates, insurance premiums and depreciation are considered.
A lot of noises regarding fare increases seem to have come from the London-centric press. Their [heavy rail] fares aren’t subsidised like the North of England’s fares (franchisees pay HM Government for the rights to operate instead of subsidise them); heavy usage makes for a more profitable area with consequent newer rolling stock. Therefore, whereas South East England commuters’ trains can be viable on their own, rail users – particularly on local non-intercity services outside the former BR Network Southeast region – need their subsidies, based on the maintenance of local transport links. In other words, Barbara Castle’s ‘Social Railway’ in practice.
It is through the former Labour Transport Minister’s guidance we saw the formation of PTEs (and of course in our area, today’s Transport for Greater Manchester) – again, ensuring the retention of much needed urban links. Which is why off-peak fares in the PTE areas for travel within its area are not only cheaper than single fares on local bus routes, but also – some cases, particularly with TfGM’s Evening Returns – cheaper than the car. It is also cheaper in the long run with season tickets, not only National Rail’s own products, but also PTE area tickets like System One’s CountyCard or Metro West Yorkshire’s Metrocard.
In Greater Manchester, motorists make use of free parking facilities at most of its rail and tram stations (Manchester Piccadilly, Manchester Victoria and Stockport are exceptions to this rule). This acts as a subsidy, but it is a much better sight than charging parking rates and seeing more cars on Ashton Old Road or Hyde Road.
Perhaps the local and national press should have seen the full picture before mouthing off. There is a case for cheaper rail fares, but there’s a greater case for cheaper public transport overall, one that is properly subsidised throughout the United Kingdom. One which doesn’t offer penalties for changing between modes, and a properly regulated one with a mix of privately owned and publicly owned operators.
- Bus Fares: First West Yorkshire, Stagecoach Manchester and Arriva North West;
- Train Fares: National Rail;
- Taxi Fares: www.yourtaximeter.com;
- Ford Ka information: Parkers’ Guide, http://www.fuel-economy.co.uk.
- TESCO, Stalybridge: petrol filling station totem, seen from 343 bus (02/01/2013).
S.V., 02 January 2012.