Let the train take the strain

Andrew Martin wrote an interesting article for the Guardian yesterday about the likely average increase in rail fares being 8% next January. This higher increase is possible because the Government has increased the upper limit for fare rises to retail price inflation (RPI) plus 3%, the aim being to reduce the overall level of subsidy paid by the government.

I like travelling by train. For anything beyond, say, 30 miles I would always look at the available train services. Even though I live in the country and my local station has trains every 2 hours to Manchester and Sheffield  during the daytime 

Partly I use trains to be environmentally conscious (check out 1% for the Planet) but mostly it is because of their practicality. If I drive then I have to concentrate solely on driving, I have to worry about the route and I have to find somewhere to park. Trains make things simpler, and I can read/work/watch a movie/sleep on the journey. And if my journey is solo then it will probably be cheaper than the cost of fuel, parking and wear and tear on my car.

In the recent past I have had jobs in both Sheffield and Manchester and in each case I have travelled by train because the daily return fares (roughly £10 to each destination) are about the same as the cost of all-day parking in the city centres. If those fares rise to roughly £11 each I would still pay them so, in one respect, George Osborne is right: rail users might be willing to bear the increase because the alternative is more costly whether in terms of money or time or practicality. But it is a bit like increasing the duty on tobacco and alcohol: it generates extra cash for the treasury because people do not change their habits.

That, though, is looking at train travel from the point of view of an individual. Taking society's point of view there are other factors. We have road congestion and pollution problems that could be eased by more people travelling by train. (Perhaps the congestion would be eased even more greatly if we reduced the movement of freight by road and put it on trains but that's for another post.) There is a case, then, for reducing fares to attract more people to use trains but this would have an impact on the economy in other ways. It could affect the sales of new cars, reduce the number of airline and airport jobs if trains are more competitive in the inter-city market. 

If the government were interested in social justice they might think that this is a price worth paying but I don't think they are. Balancing the books means spending less on railway subsidies and that means rail users have to pay more.