There is no train market

The other day, Niamh and I went down to London (to see the Science Museum with the Britpack and Molly Holzschlag) on the train. We first drove to Coventry, and I bought a ticket there from one of the QuickTicket machines where I can just drop my card in. An adult return to London, and a child return to London. Cost me £36.00 for the two (£24 for me, £12 for Niamh), which I didn’t think was too bad. We had a great time at the Science Museum, doing such fun things as electrocuting ourselves, admiring the Difference Engine, and stealing Meri’s Jaffa Cakes. And then we got on the train on the way home, going back to Coventry. On that trip on the way home, a ticket inspector asked for our tickets. I unveiled them, to be told that they weren’t valid on Virgin Trains (the exact comment was “we couldn’t do a ticket as cheap as that!”), and so I had to pay again. Sixty-six pounds worth of again, to be precise. Put a bit of a damper on the whole thing, I can tell you. The key point here is this. The privatisation of the rail services, splitting it up into loads of different companies, seems design to force a market on us where no market needs to exist. Virtually no-one I’ve spoken to actually cares which train company is running the train they are travelling on. The train companies are desperate to make us care, but no-one actually does. Would you watch a train heading to your destination go past because it was run by the wrong company? And so we are suddenly forced to care when you discover that your “return to London” is actually a “return to London on Chiltern Trains only”, and you have to pay a hugely inflated price for a second time. The same situation has arisen with power companies; no-one actually cares or even really understands the difference between nPower and Powergen and all the others. The electricity I get from one isn’t somehow better than from the others; the price difference is minimal, and a labyrinthine collection of “special” offers and complex pricing schemes makes it difficult even to compute a pricing difference anyway. Mobile companies used to be like this; if you were on Vodafone it was difficult to ring people on Cellnet, or to send text messages. In the end, they all got together and made it easier. I’ve got no problem with having separate companies, but they need to understand that the ordinary punter does not care about the difference, and model their business based on that fact rather than trying to steal customers from another company.

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