It would be fair to say that today is phase 1 of the annual debate over why on earth rail passengers continue to suffer above-inflation fare increases that are outstripping the average increase in wages by a significant margin. This is of course phase 1 as the actual fares are yet to be set by the individual rail companies – phase 2 will create howls of outrage and derision when we realise how much more we will have to pay to commute by train.
Why are rail fares going up at this rate? Well the Coalition Government policy is for fares to go up at 1% above the Retail Price Index as it stands at this point in the year for the January of the following year. So let us be clear – these fare rises are the cause of Government policy. This is because the Government considers that farepayers should take a proportionately larger burden than taxpayers for investment in the railways. Yes, even though rail privatisation was meant to lower the cost of the railways to the public purse, we are in fact paying a lot more – for necessary investment of course.
The logic of that investment by the Government in the railways is, of course, that the railways bring a significant benefit to the country, to the economy and to the general health and wealth of all of us. So given that logic, why on earth should all taxpayers not take the burden? After all, those of us travelling by rail are reducing traffic on the roads – good for car drivers, plus buses, freight/logistics, cyclists and pedestrians… as well as the health and environmental benefits plus reducing the need for roads investment which instead can be spent on railways, thus supporting the virtuous circle of modal shift from road to rail plus the huge economic, environmental and social benefits of mass transit versus the private car.
So it is a philosophical issue of finding the fair balance between the burden of the cost of public investment in the railways between the farepayer and the taxpayer – the direct user versus the benefits to the whole country (including farepayers of course). Quite clearly, my position stands that due to the huge wider benefits of the railways it should be the taxpayer. Fares must come down as a matter of policy. Imagine the alternative (put forward by organisations like the Institute of Economic Affairs et al) who consider that the railways are uneconomic and unworthy of public funding. I consider this a naive position – there is never criticism of the scale of investment in London Transport, caused by the need to reduce car usage due to the finite amount of capacity available for roads and the sheer number of people wanting to travel.
The railways are vital to the national economy, without them access to jobs, skills, health and recreation would be shifted to a reliance on either car ownership and usage or local journeys – essentially taking us back a century. We would see travel becoming a luxury, is this really what people want? Of course not.
All political parties need to better understand the role of public transport, the railways, the different values and benefits of modes of travel and more consciously value these – not just in pure economic terms but in wider terms, including strategically and politically.
Rail fares cannot keep increasing, policy must change – and as a rail commuter, the sooner this happens the better.