The Evening Standard, 20 May 2011

If your train fares seem to be going up and up, you aren’t imagining it. Yesterday saw the release of the McNulty Report, commissioned by the government in the hope of unpicking the reasons why trains in the UK cost about 30% more to run than those in other European countries. As passengers, and as tax-payers, we’re getting stiffed twice over: paying far more to travel by train than our French, German and Dutch counterparts.

McNulty has suggested that £1bn a year could be saved without any cuts to services by making efficiency savings, but this is presumably because he hasn’t included in his calculations the fact that Bob Crow will take the RMT out on strike if someone looks at him funny. So the proposed efficiency savings – a euphemism for job cuts, used only by those who genuinely believe the rest of us are too dense to have worked that out – are unlikely to be met with a Gallic shrug, and a promise to try and do things more like the French.

A review of fares is also included in the report, which should make any right-thinking traveller’s heart sink. Someone has finally noticed that the off-peak services which are just outside peak-time periods (I hesitate to say ‘rush hour’ when it’s usually three or more hours) are always rammed. So for those who have been hopping the last train out of Euston before peak-time kicks in and it’s cheaper to just take a cab to Manchester, prices are likely to go up.

But trains are already incredibly expensive for off-peak travellers, unless they have planned their journey weeks in advance. Which isn’t always possible, but unexpected events are a part of life that the train companies don’t really tolerate. If you suddenly need to visit a sick relative, you’d better hope he’s a lot iller than you thought, and that he’s included you in his will, or you’ll be struggling to find the train fare.

More off-peak price rises will make this even worse: the notion that you might spontaneously leap on a train just to do something fun is being eroded from our national psyche. The day before the report came out, I took the train to Wakefield to visit the new Hepworth Gallery. It’s a lovely museum, and an excellent day out, and if you wanted to take the train there tomorrow, it’d cost you almost £90. Take a couple of friends, and that cab doesn’t seem like such a dumb idea.

And things don’t look much perkier for those who commute. Even if peak fares don’t go up by as much as off-peak, they’ll still increase by the Retail Price Index, plus 3% for the next three years. And since RPI is so high at the moment, that’s probably an 8% increase next year. That’s a high price to pay for the privilege of spending every morning crammed into a train carriage with so many other people that Norris McWhirter would have mistaken it for a record attempt.

So, do we just give up travelling altogether, stay in London, and do everything via Skype? Or do we all put on grey wigs and forge ourselves Senior Railcards? The more I think about it, the better this idea seems to be: we could get a third off standard and first class tickets, and we can wear our comfy shoes without anyone thinking we’ve given up on life. I might even take my knitting: see you in the Quiet Coach.