Rail fares must be as affordable as possible, and airlines should be required to display their ‘true’ journey times and CO2 impact

Domestic aviation produces 80g of CO2 per mile whereas the equivalent figure for rail is 24.6g

Another year, another big hike in rail fares.

This year’s hike of 5.9% is the biggest for over a decade and naturally will do nothing to encourage people back onto the railway. Indeed, at a time of strikes, cancellations, driver shortages and a backlog of engineering works – not to mention a cost of living challenge – this increase is particularly badly timed.

The Department for Transport will point out that the increase is way below the July inflation figure which is normally used to calculate the following year’s fare increase. That figure was around 12% so the fact that it is in line with wage inflation at roughly half that is a win of sorts for the DfT in its discussions with the Treasury.

But if the Treasury thinks that a 5.9% increase will lead to a 5.9% uplift in the farebox, they are deluded. The era of the captive commuter, who will stump up whatever is demanded of him or her in order to carry out a nine-to-five job, is over. It was wilting before Covid, and the virus has finished it off.

Figures across the network clearly show that while leisure journeys are holding up well, even increasing, commuter trips are well down.

Let’s look at GTR, one of the main commuter operations taking people into London. Their morning peak numbers are just 60% of pre-Covid levels, but their midday numbers, at 101%, are actually higher than they were in 2019. Meanwhile, season ticket sales have collapsed.

Rail travel is increasingly optional, so the need to ensure what is on offer meets the needs of the passenger is greater than ever

Rail travel is increasingly optional, so the need to ensure what is on offer meets the needs of the passenger is greater than ever. A whopping fare increase does not help that. Nor of course do strikes, driver shortages, or delayed engineering works.

There are certainly steps that can be taken to improve the attractiveness of rail, not least reforming the hugely complex and opaque fares and ticketing system. The government recognises the need for this and has made a useful start, but progress is frustratingly slow.

There is, amongst other matters, a desperate need to look at the relationship between peak and off-peak fares. There is not even a standard definition of peak, though generally 09.30 is regarded as the transition point. I can get an off-peak ticket from Lewes to London on a train that leaves at 08.55 as it only arrives in London after 10 (incidentally a timetabled journey time that has got unnecessarily longer and longer over the years. Still, it gives passengers an extended opportunity to study the bland architecture of stations like Haywards Heath and Gatwick Airport during the long dwell periods at the platform as the train waits for its scheduled departure time.)

Another aspect of this is the peak fare premium, in other words the difference between peak and off-peak fares on each line. Research by Campaign for Better Transport shows this varies wildly across the country.

For example the peak premium from Brighton to London is 132% but only 5% from Grays into the capital.

There is also a crying need for some generic advertising for rail which has been almost totally absent since the demise of British Rail. The advent of GBR gives a chance to correct that and I have been assured by their impressive CEO Anit Chandarana that this is indeed on their agenda.

But there is only so much the rail sector itself, including the rail function within the DfT, can do. To make real progress, the various transport modes need to be considered together, not least in terms of price.

For rail does not operate in a vacuum. It competes with other modes, including on price, a matter very largely decided by the Treasury.

And it suffers, as does the bus sector, from a fatal mindset flaw that has infected that great department of state for years across governments of all colours. That is the notion that somehow we need to move inexorably closer to a position where the cost of running public transport is covered by the users, passengers or freight, and where the taxpayer “subsidy” can be eliminated.

This is bonkers. The result for Transport for London, for example, means 72% of their income comes from the farebox, compared to around 20-30% in other European capitals.

That is not because our near neighbours are deeply inefficient. It is because they understand the value of a good public transport system to the local economy, to a cleaner local environment, and to social cohesion.

That lesson is to be found in the UK too, if only the Treasury would look. In Nottingham, which has just marked 10 years of its workplace parking levy – which at the outset detractors warned in apocalyptic terms would destroy local business – public transport is booming, and so is the local economy. I visited the city recently and was told the good public transport incentive is in fact a positive attraction for businesses looking to invest and relocate. And of course it is good for members of the public too. For instance, Nottingham boasts the only hospital in the country with a tram stop.

“Subsidy” is the word the Treasury uses when referring to public money going into revenue support for public transport, while covering the countryside in concrete with a £27bn road building programme is termed “investment”

“Subsidy” is the word the Treasury uses when referring to public money going into revenue support for public transport, while covering the countryside in concrete with a £27bn road building programme is termed “investment”.

But as public transport demonstrably performs public goods, not least of all in terms of tackling climate change, air pollution and social exclusion, I would term money spent on buses and trains as investment – investment in a productive present and a decent, clean future – and money spent on damaging road schemes as the real subsidy.

What does this Treasury mindset produce in real life?

Between 1997 and 2020, rail fares increased by 132% (and bus fares by 192%), while the cost of motoring went up by a much lower 58%.

Since 2012, according to the RAC Foundation, rail fares have gone up 26.7% while petrol is 19% cheaper and diesel 21% cheaper.

In addition, we have now had 11 – or is it 12 – years of a freeze on fuel duty, and actually a cut last year. The government is even cutting Air Passenger Duty so helping to encourage travel on the most polluting form of transport.

For a government committed to Net Zero, it is crazy to be making the most polluting forms of transport cheaper while driving up the cost of sustainable modes. It also undermines the welcome investment the government is putting into rail and bus.

The government, and indeed many local councils, appear to be scared stiff of doing anything that might be presented as anti-motorist. Yet if the public transport option is made attractive enough to get people out of their cars, not only do those who switch benefit, but those who continue to use the car have better journeys.

When Germany brought in its 9 euro public transport offer, rail trips increased by 46% and congestion for car drivers decreased in 23 out of 26 German cities measured. Elected bodies need to be confident enough to make the case that supporting public transport helps the private motorist too.

As far as aviation is concerned, we need to bring some honesty into the debate.

As far as aviation is concerned, we need to bring some honesty into the debate.

Firstly, it is not, as the airlines would have you believe, one hour and seven minutes to fly from London to Manchester. The quoted journey time should at the very least include the time you are told to arrive ahead of the departing flight – two hours as opposed to less than five minutes at Euston for the equivalent train.

There is also a case for including the time from city centre to the airport. These of course are always a long way out, unlike rail termini which are located in city centres.

I have asked the Civil Aviation Authority as the sector regulator to require airlines to show realistic journey times.

Secondly, can we stop pretending Jet Zero is just round the corner. It isn’t. With some luck we might get somewhere by 2050, but if we want to tackle climate change now, which we must, then the obvious answer is to fly as little as possible, flying being a huge contributor to climate change. Domestic aviation produces 80g of CO2 per mile (as well as 73g of non-CO2 emissions), whereas the equivalent figure for rail is 24.6g. So the obvious short term answer is modal shift to rail, and a bit more video conferencing for overseas business connections.

I have also therefore asked the CAA to require airlines to display not simply their own CO2 footprint but the equivalent rail footprint where a parallel rail journey exists. In my view they have the power to do so under legislation passed during the coalition government.

Rail has a bright future, and indeed is essential to our future prosperity, and essential if we are to deal with the environmental challenges we face. But first rail has to position itself to give passengers what they want. And government has to stop pandering to the motorist, stop allowing the aviation sector to get away with presenting a misleadingly positive image, and start pricing transport modes according to the benefits and disbenefits they offer.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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