Published on January 31st, 2014 |
by Vittorio Trevitt
Image © Wikicommons
The cost of transport: time for a national strategy?
The issue of transport is one that has major implications for both the economic well-being of the country and on the daily lives of ordinary citizens, both locally and nationally. Transport is vital not only in the movement of essential goods and services, but also in taking people to their places of work, many of whom travel long distances each day. In recent years, rising transport costs have squeezed the disposable incomes of those who depend on rail travel to reach their workplaces, while deterring those who wish to seek employment in other parts of the country from doing so. The Coalition Government failed to make this a major priority area in its program for government, despite the hit that rising rail fares have had on people’s real incomes at a time of economic austerity.
In my home city of Brighton and Hove, commuters have been burdened with the weight of ever-escalating transport costs, with tickets from Brighton to London over 53% more expensive than they were a decade ago. This has led to commuters opting for bus travel as a cheaper option, despite the irritation of increased travel time to and from work, while others are resigned to this sorry state of affairs, having no choice but to pay out increasing sums of money to ensure that they can reach their places of work and thereby keep their jobs. In one case study, a Brighton resident noted that he now takes coaches for long trips because of the cost of trains, while a commuter from Hove highlighted what she saw as the lack of improvement in services despite the increased cost.
In another account, a resident of Brighton noted that his inability to afford train fares, together with his lack of a car, has restricted his mobility in the Sussex area and left him dependent on others who drive. There are many throughout the country who find themselves in a similar predicament, and the current situation has made a mockery of a pledge made by David Cameron to cap fare rises at 1% above inflation.
One policy alternative for dealing with this problem, long touted by many on the political Left, would be the re-nationalisation of the railways, with government having control over rail fares and thereby keeping them as low as possible for daily commuters. With opinion polls showing that most people support such a policy development, and given that British commuters pay, on average, 10 times more for their season tickets than their counterparts in Continental Europe, there is a good deal of justification for such a measure to be implemented. It is estimated that £1.2 billion has been lost each year as a consequence of fragmentation and privatisation, money that could have enabled rail fares to be 18% lower than they are at present.
Another alternative could be the introduction of targeted subsidy schemes to help struggling commuters. For those who seek employment in other areas outside their local community, the government could introduce a transport subsidy scheme whereby jobseekers would only pay part of their rail fares, with government and the rail companies paying the rest. A similar scheme could be introduced for people earning below a certain threshold already in employment but who commute on a daily basis, with most of the fare jointly subsidised by government and business. Such policies would not only reduce the burden of transport costs on household budgets up and down the country, but also ensure that those who wish to find work in other parts of the country could do so without worrying about the affordability factor involved.
The government could look into adopting on a nationwide basis the plan touted by the SNP administration in Scotland to freeze off-peak fares and remove some absurd anomalies whereby various commuters have ended up paying vastly different amounts for the same journey. The plan is expected to make some trips in Scotland cost a third less than in England and Wales, and could very well have a similar impact on a national level, relieving millions of commuters each day from the burden of transport costs at a time of stagnant wage rises and reduced household budgets. The government could also consider introducing free rail travel for pensioners, many of whom have friends and relatives living all over the country and may have difficulty in easily reaching them.
In light of the increased pressure on household finances as a result of the sluggish economy, exacerbated by above-inflation rises in transport costs, it is time for the Coalition Government to adopt a national strategy aimed at providing a fairer and more affordable pricing system for commuters across the country. As long as the government fails to take action on this crucial issue, households will continue to be squeezed by ever-increasing rail fares in this time of economic uncertainty.
Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.