When it's cheaper to fly via Spain than get the train to Wembley...

21 September 2022

This article was originally published by Smart Transport. For more content like this, check out their website https://www.smarttransport.org.uk/

Earlier this year a Sunderland football fan wanting to travel to Wembley to watch his team play found it was cheaper to fly via Spain than get the train from Newcastle to London.

James Jelly paid just £51 for plane tickets and an overnight stay in Spain, rather than paying £162 for a train. To many people in Britain this story will not come as a surprise. Train fares are literally a national joke. The cartoonist Matt regularly riffs on rail fares including one of a man telling his neighbour: “I still work from home. I’m shielding from a nasty new rail fare variant.”

The RAC’s cost of transport index shows the cost of rail fares has risen faster than the cost of living or average wages since 2012 while the cost of motoring has fallen in real terms. Yet even this average fare figure hides even steeper increases for certain ticket types.

While it is possible to get cheap advance tickets, the cost of an anytime long distance rail ticket has more than doubled in real terms since 2004. Contrast this with Europe where rail travel is generally much cheaper.

The 2011 McNulty report Rail Value for Money found that the UK’s fares cost roughly 30% more per passenger kilometre than those in the rest of Europe.

A later 2016 study for the European Commission found that, for peak time singles, the UK is by far the most expensive country for intercity trains (though close to the EU average for off-peak returns).

Why are our rail fares so expensive?

The McNulty report largely attributed it to the highly fragmented nature of the rail network leading to excessively high costs, though stopped short of blaming the 1994 privatisation of British Rail.

Before privatisation, the British Railways Board showed that British railways were 40% more efficient than eight comparator railways in Europe, whereas, by 2011, the McNulty report found Britain’s railways were 40% less efficient than the national railways of France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland.

The campaign group We Own It adds inadequate Government funding and shareholder profits leaking out of the system as reasons underlying the rail fare malaise.

In the UK more of the costs are loaded onto passengers so the Government can pay less. Whereas in Europe there is a greater appreciation of the social and economic benefits of higher public funding.

Rail elsewhere

Other countries which value their public transport services more highly than we do recognise that making public transport affordable is not a cost to society but a benefit by providing access to health, education, jobs, family, opportunities and leisure.

This year in Germany the government introduced a discounted nationwide travel pass to help offset rising fuel and living costs.

They offered everyone, residents and visitors, a €9 (£7.65) ticket to travel throughout Germany on local/regional trains (excluding long distance and intercity trains) and other public transport for a whole month in June, July or August.

Spain has also slashed public transport fares on state-owned transport and from September 2022 until the end of the year will make some train journeys free in response to rapidly rising energy costs and inflation.

With a cost of living crisis and a climate emergency, we should be following Germany’s and Spain’s lead by making low carbon forms of travel like rail cheaper and more convenient.

Trains are an essential part of a transport decarbonisation strategy as they can replace the longer car trips that account for the majority of carbon emissions.

Although trips of more than 10 miles account for only one fifth (22%) of car/van driver trips, they are responsible for 69% of car/van miles travelled.

Pre-Covid around a quarter of long-distance car journeys (>50 miles) were for commuting and business, some of which can be avoided by working from home and use of remote technologies.

But more than three-fifths of these long distance car journeys are leisure related – visiting friends, holidays, day trips etc. To persuade people to ditch the car and take the train for more of these leisure journeys, we need a package of measures to improve services and make them cheaper.

For example, we need better or more frequent services to seaside and rural areas. Often there is no direct service between major population centres and coastal areas which is important when travelling with lots of luggage. We also need to make end-to-end journeys easier by improving connections with buses, trams, ferry services, cycling and walking access.

No capacity for growth

At the same time as reducing fares we also need to expand rail capacity. Much of the UK railway infrastructure has no capacity for any growth in traffic due to historical underinvestment and fragmentation.

This needs to be addressed through a significant and sustained pipeline of investment in enhancements to increase capacity, provide more frequent services, reopen lines and stations, electrify the network, and provide more and newer rolling stock. Instead, in summer 2022, the Government announced rail cuts of 10%.

The need for radical change in the railways was acknowledged in the Government’s year-long review of rail, chaired by Keith Williams who criticised the current system as “too fragmented, too complicated, and too expensive to run”.

This review ushered in the new public body, Great British Railways, designed to end the current fragmentation caused by privatisation.

We Own It described this new body as “moving the deckchairs on the Titanic” and the same old system rebranded”.

Instead, it has called on the Government to bring the railways back into public ownership.

If we had a publicly-owned national rail system, a report done by my colleagues Ian Taylor and Lynn Sloman estimated it would save £1 billion a year, enough to fund an 18% cut in rail fares.

That’s because we wouldn’t be wasting money on shareholder profits, fragmentation and a higher cost of borrowing.

According to RMT research the three rolling stock companies which own and lease the trains paid out nearly £1bn in dividends at taxpayers’ expense in 2020-21, equivalent to half the £2bn in fares paid by passengers.

In Scotland, where the railway was returned to public ownership in April 2022, authorities are carrying out a ‘Fair Fares Review’ to look at the cost of services and there has been talk of scrapping peak time fares and bringing in free travel for young people.

With a publicly-owned railway – and proper investment – we could make train fares in Britain truly fair and provide a world class rail service.

We could get more people back on trains after the pandemic and facilitate the shift from car travel needed to meet our carbon targets.

This would provide immeasurable benefits for communities, carbon and congestion.

Author:  Lisa Hopkinson

Lisa Hopkinson is an environmental researcher with more than 30 years experience in Hong Kong and the UK in the charitable, educational and private sectors. She has variously worked as a consultant, campaigner, political aide and researcher.

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