The annual fair fares media frenzy (aka oh look, railways!)

The title hopefully indicates my frustration that we have come round to the annual media feeding frenzy and slanging match over the increase in rail fares based on the current rate of inflation.  The usual arguments are once more being trotted out…

The Coalition Government has made it clear that it wants to say fare payers take on a greater share of the burden in rail investment rather than taxpayers more generally.  This somewhat riles me – road investment…???

The crucial point is surely over the wider value of the rail network.  If we remember the mantra that transport is a public utility, a public service that must be provided by the state for the greater good of all of us.  We then take the next step and consider what can rail investment achieve for us (society)?

Well, railways are a superb form of high capacity mass transit.  Heavy rail can move large numbers of people very efficiently – both commuter services into city centres and also intercity travel.  Both of these elements are crucial to meeting the demand for transport for all of us – going to work, to school, for health or recreation purposes.  But more, once we have a fully electrified railway network running off clean sources of energy, we then have an environmentally friendly network that is supporting public health with no negative effect on air quality (clean transport, no emissions); no risk to pedestrian safety; an efficient use of space (important for cities); and providing what should be cheap effective high capacity transport for everyone – providing transport connectivity and accessibility to all.

The social, environmental and economic benefits of a good value,  effective and efficient railway network are surely obvious.  Indeed given both the boom in demand for rail travel and the booming levels of investment, it would seem to be empirically true that the railways are indeed valued by the public and the State.

So why squeeze it so hard then?  By continuing to boost capacity to meet the ongoing growth in demand, more people will use it and it will become normalised.  But even further, rail must be used to not just cover the growth in travel demand but start eating into the modal share of cars – this will provide multiple policy benefits for public health, for safety, for the environment as well as supporting economic development.  More use of the railways can support ongoing increases in investment.

But one last thing, why not be more cute about it.  The railways could unlock an awful lot of additional investment with a clear focus on transit-oriented development.  In London, the coming of Crossrail has brought a number of new booming hotspot areas where the connectivity of the new Crossrail line has acted as a catalyst for significant new development.  Could a quid pro quo between the railways and developers (along with transport authorities) could unleash opportunities for desperately needed new housing and employment land, in return those developments can support ongoing investment in the railway.

Anyway, back to the point, fair fares?  Well, the Government might helpfully focus on the much greater social good that the railways provide (indeed, in a similar way that the roads do… and which they do agree with) and the wider policy benefits that the railways bring.  So there should be a taxpayer burden to support the railways because they deliver a social good in the same way that education and health does.

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