There is something vaguely odd about the obsession with the railways British people seem to have. Whether it is standing on a wintry Crewe platform watching some locomotive trundle past, the fixation with high speed rail lines or electrification of existing ones or the 2.3% average train fare increase announced today, the population and media love to debate and discuss the future of these oblong containers with wheels.
The current passions all seem to stem from a two decade old debate about who should own the railways and who should pay for them. In the red corner sits many an enthusiast who argues that the railways should never be run by the private sector and the ‘excessive profits’ generated by these companies should instead been invested back into the system. In the blue corner sits many a businessman who argues that competition and retendering drives up service quality and punctuality which ultimately is beneficial for those who travel on trains.
This is a worthwhile but relatively pointless debate for now, simply, it isn’t going to change. But what has changed over recent years, and what hasn’t been heavily discussed. is who should pay for the railways.
This is where there is, or at least was, cross party consensus it seems. Both red and blue corners, when in government, agree that passengers, not taxpayers overall, should pay for the upkeep of the railways. This is a big change in belief as up until this century trains were seen as worthy of subsiding. Now, both political sides and the privatised rail industry itself think that if you use the railways then you should pay for the full cost of that ticket. The basic argument goes that some poor old granny in Carmarthenshire who has never seen a locomotive should never have to subsidise some St Albans banker to journey into the capital to make his millions.
It sounds like a very plausible argument especially when one considers the stats on trains and train use. For all the hullabaloo that surrounds the train industry only one in 12 of us travelled in a carriage last week and only half of us will have boarded a locomotive in the last year. On top of that, the majority of the journeys were for commuting purposes and the majority of services either started or finished in London. It means that of those few people who do take the train are younger, working and richer than the vast majority of the country. It therefore makes sense that these people who are benefiting from getting to and from very well paid work via a train should pay for the service they use. In a weird twisted way, it is redistributive, as it takes greater money from the rich and less tax from the poor to provide the service. Not only that but if you fly, cycle or drive to work you don’t see any subsidies being forked for those commutes do you?
It is also only people with a vested interest who are the only ones complaining about this state of affairs. Passenger groups, who are duty bound to ratchet up the volume of complaint against price rises, and journalists whose readership, and their editors, are almost certain to journey by rail and have to pay for season tickets, that do the annual complaining. Everyone else remains moot on the whole subject, especially when it is tricky to rally against when the number of journeys being done by train has never been so high and keeps in rising.
Yet there are problems with this argument. Firstly, other forms of transport are heavily subsidised. Plane fuel attracts no tax on it, cycling has the massive tax-free cycle to work perk and car costs, whether through changes to vehicle excise duty or the fuel price escalator freeze, have been plummeting in real terms year on year for donkeys. Trains would end up being the only transport mode where the actual cost of travel is the actual cost of travel.
The environmental argument also holds water. Trains are much better for the environment that planes and cars. Surely we need to keep the fares as low as possible for as many people as possible as that helps meet the legally binding climate change commitments the UK has enshrined in statute. And it should be done even if that means people having to be crammed in like cattle. The more people who do it, the less CO2 emissions and fewer of the 30,0000 people who die from PM10 particulates and Nitrous Oxide will perish.
Then there are the economic and social issues. For every pound that is taken in ticket price rises that is a pound less for an individual to invest in other services that generate jobs and GDP or unable to be squirrelled away just at a time when personal and household debt is reaching eyewatering and crippling levels. As rail is the safest form of land related transport except for the Tube, by encouraging as many people onto trains, it reduces the number of people that will die on the roads, relieves pressure on the NHS and ambulance crews and saves money.
The difficulty with all this is that the rules or the rail are not the rules of the road or the air. If train passengers have to pay the price of a rail ticket then why shouldn’t plane customers pay the price of an airfare and car owners pay the full cost of ownership, pollution, injuries and road repairs? Whilst the concept of user pays makes absolutely logical sense the ideological argument falls when it only applies to one mode of transport.
The discussion needs to take place but it never does. The annual fare rise announcement comes out. The usual suspects howl in disgust, the rail passengers tsk and the journalists dig out their copy from the previous year and re-file it after having changed the last ticket price percentage increase with this one. What is ignored is what sort of transport industry Britain wants and what it is going to do to achieve it. As per normal the UK muddles along with some half-cocked narrative and short term understand of need. Yet what repeated governments have failed to outline is how it will cope with ever increasing travel by a larger population with an ever growing income and an environmental legal target to meet.
Only by mulling this will a coherent pricing strategy for of modes of travel become a reality. And only by doing that will more people think about the way in which Britain functions. It then at least would channel some of that weird obsession into trains into a constructive useful purpose.