Scotrail fares will increase by 3.6% in January, Madelin Otterbein explores how damaging this could be for students
ScotRail, Scotland’s primary train service, was purchased by the Dutch company Abellio in 2015, pushing the company to update and improve its network. One improvement, listed on Abellio’s website, is “smarter, lower cost journeys.” However, in January of 2018, ticket fares will be raised by 3.6%, the highest increase in prices since January 2013.
While 3.6% may not seem significant, for people who use trains on a regular basis the change could add up, hitting student commuters particularly hard. The rise affects season tickets and "anytime" fares. In comparison, off-peak fares will go up by 2.6%. Despite what may seem like a large jump in prices, the government would say these raises are justified when it comes to inflation, changes in policy, and railway improvements.
Every year, ScotRail can raise its fares by as much as the Retail Prices Index, or RPI, figure for the July prior. The RPI is a measure of inflation published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). However, despite this, it is no longer the "headline" measure of inflation, replaced instead in most instances with the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) drawing into question the continued use of RPI to raise train fares. It is the CPI that is used to determine wages and pension increases and is quite often lower than the RI. According to the ONS website, August’s RPI is at 3.9%, while the CPI sits at 2.9%. Transport Focus, an independent group that monitors and researches the transportation system in Scotland, is calling for CPI to replace RPI when it comes to the raising of rail fare.
When asked about the current rate of fares, third year student Andrew Keenan, who commutes to university every day from Coatbridge, said, “I pay nearly £5 for a ticket into the city centre or over £6 pounds for a ‘roundabout ticket’ which allows me to use the subway, necessary to visit the west end.” He went on to add, “during term time, when I buy a zone card, this costs me £91 for a month. The trains are frequently delayed, occasionally cancelled and, on Sunday, very limited.” Of course trains are not the only option, however when this thought was posed to Andrew he replied, “Busses are inefficient but a possibility in an emergency. A taxi with a Coatbridge company costs about £15 and I don’t drive so in the absence of other viable forms of transport, I’m just going to have to like it or lump it.”
The price hikes have angered unions and passengers alike. However, Transport Secretary, Humza Yousaf, says that there must be an increase to support rail services, and that the annual increase is never more than inflation. Additionally, since 2007, it has been government policy to move towards having passengers pay more of the overall cost of running the rail system and taxpayers to pay less. Where fares used to account for about half the cost of running trains, they now account for almost 70%. Therefore, even allowing for inflation, rail fares have gone up by close to 25% since the 1990s.
Whether or not the changing fares is justified, it is undeniable that it will have an effect on those who take ScotRail on a regular basis. Nicole Maka-Sprawa, a student at the University of Stirling, commutes from Glasgow three to four times a week for both work and university. While a bus is also an option, bus routes do not allow for as much flexibility and do take longer, making the train the more appealing option. When it comes to the price raises, Nicole noted: “I guess the increase in prices does make sense considering the improvements ScotRail has been making over the last few years. Although, I believe peak time travel tickets are really expensive as they are right now. For example, my friend commutes to Edinburgh from Glasgow for work and pays £24 a day for travel.” She attributes the reasonable cost of train fare for her to her age 16-25 railcard, which allows her to save 30% on all ticket prices. She believes that without that discount, prices could be quite high for someone traveling frequently.
With regards to railway improvements, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation said: “We are investing in the biggest rail modernisation programme for over a century to improve services for passengers - providing faster and better trains with more seats.”
In addition to general improvements, there is also work being done to construct an electric train line between Glasgow and Edinburgh. When the plan began in 2014, this was meant to be completed by 2016, but was then pushed back to July 2017, and just recently, was held up another few months, with the first services set to begin this month. Not only were there delays in the process, the estimated cost was £742 million, almost £90 million higher than the previous estimate. Delays were blamed on problems at the trainbuilder Hitachi’s factory in Durham. Prior to the most recent delay, the cause for pushing back a finish date were blamed on issues with electrifying the line. Though innovative as far as energy usage and reducing the consumption of fossil fuels, the train will only cut travel time by four minutes in its early days, and by nine minutes once it is fully in function.
Electric trains are not the only improvement currently being attempted. Older trains are being upgraded to provide a comfortable means of transportation. £50m is budgeted to upgrade this new fleet, set to have all trains in action by May 2019. There have been setbacks here as well. Just a few weeks ago, The Scotsman reported that one of the trains set to operate between Edinburgh and Glasgow as well as between Aberdeen and Inverness caught fire, shortly before being unveiled. No one was injured and the carriage was empty, though the fire is still a somewhat ominous sign for the company. Despite this incident, the trains set to be used have a good reputation and are expected to run until 2030.
Rising train fare and delays in improvements certainly put ScotRail in a bad light for the time being. However, assuming setbacks do not continue, these upgrades to the rail system will likely benefit both ScotRail and its customers in the future. As the electric trainline and refurbished trains begin to come into use, soon it will be clear whether or not this price hike will have the positive result that has been promised.