Julian Huppert on Trains

17: 40 Tuesday 20th December 2011
Drive BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

CHRIS MANN: Train companies have defended their decision to raise fares by an average of 5.9% in the New Year. They say the money raised will help pay for new trains and better services. The Government has limited the increase in regulated fares at 1% above inflation, which is currently 5.2%, and remaining fares have now been set. Passenger groups say some of the rises are shocking. The MP for Cambridge, Julian Huppert, is Chairman of the Liberal Democrats’ Transport Committee, and he joined me earlier to give me his reaction. (TAPE)
JULIAN HUPPERT: Well I’m very pleased on the one hand that it’s not going up by as much as it was going to be. The Government had been planning to have increases that were 3% above inflation, and I’m very glad that a campaign which I fought very hard, leading for the Liberal Democrats on transport policy, my colleague Norman Baker as well, managed to bring that back down, so that it’s only 1% above inflation. That’s still too much, and I would like to see the end of above inflation rail fares. Rail fares are already too high, and they need to start coming down, rather than going up so fast.
CHRIS MANN: The price rises are linked to July’s inflation, so the potential for next year is even better perhaps?
JULIAN HUPPERT: Well yes. If inflation starts to come down, which I mean it’s beginning to come down now, and I hope it will keep coming down, that will certainly reduce it. But there’s still so just the question of what happens to prices compared to inflation. As I say, the Government was planning to do 3% above inflation. So even if there was no inflation at all, prices would still go up. I would like to see 1% below inflation, so we start to bring the cost of train fares back down, because they are already far far too high.
CHRIS MANN: Well you know what people will say. You’re in partnership with the Conservatives. You are part of the Government, so why don’t you do what you say you’ve been going to do?
JULIAN HUPPERT: Well exactly. And we managed to get a 2% reduction in the rail fares, which I think is a very big success, and we’ll keep fighting. I’d like to hope that in the next year, or the year after that, we will manage to see those lower rates happen. Because I think it is quite clear, and I think the Government has accepted our argument, that you can’t just keep putting fares up again and again.
CHRIS MANN: The description, as you’ll know, last year by Philip Hammond, that trains had become a rich man’s toy, I know that you’ll be on a train tonight heading back to Cambridge from London, as you look around you, do you see it as a rich man’s toy?
JULIAN HUPPERT: No. I think trains provide essential access for a lot of people travelling, whether for work, whether for pleasure, all sorts of things. And compared to, say, anywhere in Europe, we do pay far too much for train travel. We have to get a grip on that. And there are some things, like the McNulty proposals, and various other things that can be done, that will save money, by streamlining the fleet, by not having so many slight variants of different types of carriage. I think all of that will be a very good thing to see. And I do hope we’ll be able to get fares back down again, so that people can use them more. And at the same time, that we can get more trains and more capacity.
CHRIS MANN: ATOC, the Association of Train Operating Companies, say the fare increases will be sued to pay for new trains, faster services, and better stations. Do we have all three in this county?
JULIAN HUPPERT: Well we are certainly seeing some longer trains, and some better services. Cambridge Station is expanded. I’m hoping in the New Year we’ll get the go-ahead for the new Chesterton Science Park Station. I think that would be excellent. But I think there’s a real question. I’ve challenged Philip Hammond publicly in the House of Commons about what to do with the estimated billion pounds a year that could come from the McNulty savings, a report on changing various details of how the train system works. I would like that money to be spent on fare reductions and investment. He argued for it to be given back to the Treasury. I hope we’ll actually see more investment, and more sensible levels of fares.
CHRIS MANN: It does seem there’s something also in the small print her. These increase are the average. But there are some that are going up a lot, and some not so much. How do you think we’re going to fare in Cambridgeshire?
JULIAN HUPPERT: Indeed. There are what’s called regulated fares, and deregulated fares. And actually one of the problems is that the whole fare structure is far far too complicated. It’s very hard for anybody really to tell exactly what’s going on in some cases. It’s very hard to say exactly what will happen for every single route. I think the main routes around Cambridge, I’m expecting to be that average figure. But we’ll have to see when the full details come out.
CHRIS MANN: You talk about the complexity of it all. Of course the utility companies have been made to toe the line recently, and make their prices less complicated. Is it time we did the same with the railways?
JULIAN HUPPERT: I think it is. It’s one of the things that’s been suggested already. The Government is looking at how to restructure the fares. Because it cannot be right that there is a situation where people genuinely cannot work out what the best way to travel is, what the different prices are. I know I don’t always get quite the fares that I expect, depending on exactly what time you’re travelling, whether you can use a network card, whether you can’t. It’s all a bit too complicated. I think we need to make it much much simpler for people to use.
CHRIS MANN: People are heading off on Christmas holidays right now, as you know, making decisions on how they’re going to get there. As you say, going from Cambridge or from Peterborough to elsewhere in the country, is it any surprise that people by and large choose to go by car, because it’s too difficult by railways, and it’s too unreliable, and it’s too expensive?
JULIAN HUPPERT: Well I think we do need, as I say, to bring the prices down and to make it easier. Because one reason why I do love to travel by train, particularly for something like that, is because you get that chance to relax. Then if you do drive, you do have to concentrate. You can’t just switch off, read, do whatever you might want to do. And there are obviously problems where you have traffic jams and things. Cars can be unreliable as well. One would hope that however people travel, their travel is easy. And we will keep working, trying to make the trains a better way to go.