Should transport be considered a right? This is the question at stake in the most comprehensive review of our railways since privatisation. The McNulty report, released last week, made recommendations to improve the inefficiency and spiraling costs on our railways. Prices have increased out of all proportion over the past decade, yet the provision of service has largely worsened. Something must be done about this, and McNulty’s report has been well-received.
However, there are worrying signs that subsidised rail tickets on Saver and Off-Peak tariffs will drastically increase, and perhaps even disappear. Such tickets are the lifeblood of students, the elderly and the unemployed. The report recommended such Saver tickets should no longer be under Government control, which mandates a maximum price and minimum availability level. Moreover, it suggested they could be abolished altogether on popular routes. The consequences to mobility of those living on the economic margins would be dire.
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said in reaction that rail subsidies shouldn’t be permitted for those who use trains on the basis that they “tend to be better off anyway.” This misses the point. Rail prices, even for the cheapest Advance fares, have increased well above above inflation for the past decade. In the ten years to 2008, the cost of rail travel rose 46%, where as the cost of motoring rose by only 26%. Our rail prices are the most expensive in Europe, and we now have the bizarre situation where for many journeys it is cheaper to drive than take the train. How does this fit with any kind of environmental strategy? And what of those who don’t have a car?The reason the better off overwhelm the rail network is because only they can afford it.
If the government increases the price of Off-Peak and Saver tickets exponentially, then it will cause transport poverty, or preclude from the railways altogether those whose incomes place them on the margins of affordable transport. The railways are booming, overcrowding is worse than ever, and fares are outrageous. Isn’t it enough to ask that those on the economic margins are allowed a brief respite? For a short period each day, be allowed access to a ‘public’ transport system that seems to have comprehensively left them behind?