Equalising rail fares – balancing the books but at what cost?

Once upon a long ago – I think way back in the 1990s – I looked at the fares from Belfast Central to every station on the network.  In those days, the Great Northern branch line from Knockmore to Antrim was still open, and I found a few surprises.

Chiefly, that Bangor, 13 miles from Belfast Central, had the same fare as Whitehead (15 miles away) and Crumlin (a lot further).  Granted, Crumlin had an unusual fare because the fare to Antrim was calculated via Bleach Green, and it would have been unfair to charge more to go to Crumlin than to Antrim, but even so, it was obvious that Bangor passengers were subsidising other lines.

However, that’s the way things were.  Bangor and Portadown passengers have subsidised passengers on other lines for decades.  There were other oddities: the fare from Carnalea to Belfast was about £1 less than from Bangor West at the time, despite being less than a mile apart.  The fare from Bangor to Adelaide was about £1 less than the sum of the fares from Bangor to Belfast and Belfast to Adelaide, and if I recall correctly, because the spreadsheet has long been deleted (very unlike me), Larne line passengers going beyond Great Victoria Street saw a jump in fares from Adelaide onwards out of proportion to their distance from what is now Lanyon Place.

That is the context for today’s Translink announcement of a fare rise aimed at those currently paying disproportionately less for the same travelling distance than others.

All traditional bus and train fares are theoretically structured like taxi fares: you pay to get on, and then you pay according to distance travelled.  Translink has a cap on return fares of the price of a one-day ilink ticket for the same journey, but for example, web fares on the Enterprise, like online tickets in GB, are purely promotional and sit outside the conventional structure.  Way outside.

And that brings us to the cross-subsidisation.  It would probably surprise Bangor passengers to realise that they were paying disproportionately more than Whitehead passengers per mile, but it’s nevertheless true.

The effect

The scale can be illustrated by these example fares which both Belfast Live and I obtained from Translink.

  • Portadown-Belfast: 20p increase on a single ticket
  • Lurgan-Belfast: 50p increase on a single ticket
  • Newry-Belfast: 50p increase on a single ticket
  • Antrim-Belfast: £1.30 increase on a single ticket
  • Larne-Belfast: £1.40 increase on a single ticket.

By way of contrast, Bangor, Holywood and Lisburn passengers will see no change, as will passengers from Derry/Londonderry because of the iLink fare cap.  I don’t have details of any intermediate stations.

The politics

Let’s be honest, increasing fares which had been held artificially low for years is going to go down like a lead balloon.  Whitehead passengers aren’t going to look across Belfast Lough and understand that they’re going further than Bangor passengers, they’re going to look at a 17% fare rise, and Antrim passengers are looking at a 20% fare rise.

Nor are they going to put the blame where it belongs.  I fully expect Facebook to be full of people blaming Translink instead of DfI who directed them to find revenue raising measures (at least this one doesn’t involve cuts to services), or even Chris Heaton-Harris for setting such an inadequate budget, let alone the DUP who forced him to set the budget in the first place.  I am told of a DUP MLA coming into a meeting complaining about how she opposed such and such a cut to a government service recently, entirely blind to how she and her party had opted out of the opportunity to prevent such cuts in the first place (and in some cases had been responsible for the budget overruns in the first place).

I see the papers today stating that NI is now £2.3 billion short of what is necessary to maintain parity with spending in 2021.  The budget position we see now is inevitably going to result in us having to pay more – perhaps in things like prescription charges and water charges, perhaps in bus service cuts.

All things the DUP and other parties vocally oppose – but am I being too cynical sceptical in suggesting that it might be convenient to the DUP to come back into the Assembly after the Secretary of State has imposed prescription charges and water charges on us and it won’t be their fault because they opposed it when legislation was being made in Westminster?

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