It’s time to freeze rail fares4 October 2022
A blog by Michael Soloman Williams, Campaigns Manager at Campaign for Better Transport.
Last week, I was on You and Yours, BBC Radio 4’s consumer programme, to discuss rail and air fares. This was in response to the story of a football fan who flew from London to Barrow-In-Furness for £33. The flexible return rail fare was an almost incredible £389.
Jack’s story was shocking, but unfortunately not as shocking as it should be. We have come to expect that rail fares are very often far too expensive and air fares far too cheap. How did things get to this point? This is a case of upside-down priorities at government level, especially in the context of a cost-of-living crisis and a climate emergency, and it has gone on for far too long.
I can relate to Jack’s situation, too. When I was a student, my mother was rushed into hospital with a life-threatening brain tumour. I had to take a train on the day from Leeds to London and the cost, twenty years ago, for a student, was £180. That’s just not right. I think at that point I was struck by an acute sense of injustice which led to me campaigning for reform to the system for the benefit of all, including football fans wanting to take the train to Barrow-in-Furness!
Life is unpredictable, so there must be a much more humane approach to national ticketing to give us the sense of freedom for longer distance journeys which we are used to for local ones. Prohibitive prices effectively imprison us, and profits are often made at our expense. A better way is possible.
That’s why we’re calling for a fare freeze for 2023. This could be funded in part by a kerosene tax – that’s a tax on aviation fuel, which is currently the only untaxed form of fuel. Beyond this, much more needs to be done, so we are also calling for a full reform of fare pricing, making fares simpler and more affordable for all. The fare freeze is the first, important step. If we want proof that low fares get people on trains, we do have the example of the Great British Rail Sale which offered millions of tickets at half price and was so successful that it was extended. The LUMO trains on the East Coast main line have also been very successful with their low-price model. So much so, in fact, that they have attracted people off planes onto trains on the Edinburgh-London route. This is really what we want to see, and perfect evidence that people will take the train if it is affordable.
Yes, this incurs a cost to the public purse, and people do sometimes ask why all taxpayers should fund the railways, but I think this misses the point entirely. The railways benefit absolutely everyone, whether you use them or not, being the most environmentally friendly form of transport, and brilliant for the economy. For every pound invested in the railways £2.50 goes back into the wider economy, and for those who need to drive, trains reduce congestion, so what’s not to like?
It is really important to get the language right here. We sometimes hear about funding the railways as a subsidy, but it isn’t a subsidy – it’s an investment. It makes complete economic sense to invest in the railways, and it’s a bit strange to even need to make this argument. We have short memories, don’t we? The railways brought this country together, powered the industrial revolution and have played a central role in creating the prosperous, connected modern world as we know it. They are good for our health, good for the planet and good for the pound. Also, considering how good it is for our health to use public transport – people who use public transport are more likely to meet the UK government recommendations for physical activity – we might well think of trains as an extension of the National Health Service. In fact, not only do they save our lives, they save the planet too, so really they’re an International Health Service!
I hope increasing numbers of people will keep supporting our campaign for a fare freeze in 2023. We’ve got a fantastic record at successfully influencing positive change on transport policy, so if you join us, you can genuinely be part of a better, fairer and greener future.