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ANALYSIS: Let’s be clear: there has been no decision about rail fares

A WELL-WORN saying in the world of news is ‘a lie is half way around the world, while truth is still getting its boots on’ (writes Sim Harris).

It may be well-worn, but it certainly fits the facts in the Case of the January Fare Rises.

If I ask you how much are fares are going to rise in the New Year, and you reply: ‘1 point six per cent’, I am afraid you have fallen for it. If you are especially well-informed and say: ‘Regulated fares are going up by 1 point six per cent’ you are being more accurate (in a sense) but you are still wrong. At least for now.

The announcement early yesterday that the Retail Prices Index had risen by 1.6 per cent in July triggered a wave of wailing from the media. The BBC, which should be ashamed, headed its website story ‘Rail fares to rise 1.6% in January despite passenger slump’. I was interviewed by several BBC radio stations yesterday, and had to start in each case by patiently contradicting the presenter, who had followed (not unexpectedly) the Corporation’s misleading version when introducing the story.

The RPI for July is customarily the basis for fare changes at the start of the following year, but it is not an unbreakable link. It is not the equivalent of Newton’s laws of motion.

In reality, ministers have to decide whether or not to apply the July RPI (they usually do) to the following year’s fares.

But this year rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris was unusually cautious: ‘We expect any rail fare rise to be the lowest in four years come January and any increase will go straight to ensuring crucial investment in our railways.

‘Taxpayers have been very generous in their support to keep trains running throughout the coronavirus pandemic, and whilst it’s only fair that passengers also contribute to maintaining and improving the services they use, a lower rise will help ensure the system returns to strength.’

Spot the giveaway words: ‘any rail fare rise’; ‘any increase’ and ‘a lower rise’. No commitment at all, just what is sometimes called a ‘holding statement’.

To be fair to the wider media, some did spot the potential bear trap. The Times was well ahead, reporting several hours even before the RPI announcement was published that ‘Ministers are preparing to delay a decision on next year’s rail fare rise because of concern over low passenger numbers during the pandemic. They will refuse to commit themselves to a rise in line with inflation today, raising the possibility that ticket prices could be frozen in the early part of next year to stimulate passenger growth.’

That turned out to be spot on, but perhaps no one at the BBC reads The Times any more. The BBC story did include a faint-hearted qualification: ‘The government said any fare increases will be the lowest for four years’ and also quoted Chris Heaton-Harris, but that was further down the story and the headline set the scene, as headlines tend to do.

Many others, including some specialist transport titles (which really should know better), automatically parroted the same garbage.

So, just to clarify. We don’t yet know if regulated fares in England and Wales will go up in January. If they do, the increase is also not yet decided (or at least has not yet been announced). It could even be 1.6 per cent.

Scotland, meanwhile, is reported to be considering what it should do.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps is almost certainly doing the same thing in London.

Well, think on, Minister. When you have thought it through, we will do our best to report your decision in a straightforward way.

And no misleading headlines.

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