Comment

01.11.12

Who should pay for the railways - passengers or taxpayers?

Source: Rail Technology Magazine October/November 2012

Julian Huppert MP, who represents Cambridge and is co-chair of the Lib Dem transport committee, says his party opposes the consensus that passengers should bear an ever-increasing burden of the costs of rail.

Since the last Government introduced above inflation rail fare rises in 2003, the story has been the same every year: higher prices for increasingly over-crowded services.

Public patience for these rises is beginning to wear thin. This year, there were reports that the Train Operating Companies stepped in to urge against a planned increase of RPI+3%, after worries that fare levels could begin to put people off the railways, and force revenues down.

Rail travel is cleaner, greener, more efficient and frequently quicker than other forms of transport. And with ever rising fuel prices, increasingly congested cities and looming climate targets, rail is fast becoming the only viable option for a vast number of citizens and public policy makers alike.

For these reasons, not only would an RPI+3% increase have been wrong, rail fares should come down in real terms. Coalition is about compromise, so we agreed to an interim cap of RPI+1% for 2012; in between our position and that of the Tories. Thankfully, that cap has now been renegotiated for this year and the next.

There is fundamental agreement between both Labour and the Tories that passengers should bear an ever-increasing burden of the costs of rail. The Liberal Democrats simply do not agree. We need to end the era of aboveinflation fare rises, and I and my Party believe that fares should go up by no more than 1% below inflation.

The McNulty review of the railways highlighted that part of the reason our fares are high and rising, is because our railways are up to 40% less efficient than European counterparts. Fixing that requires some painful savings, which we support, but only if the savings found are used to reduce fares.

In addition, we need investment in order to improve efficiency. The other parties think this should largely be paid for by passengers, but it is Government failure which caused under-investment for the last few decades, and we have to encourage more, not less, people to use trains.

If we are to continue the extraordinary boom in passenger numbers we’ve seen over the last few years, we have to make rail travel attractive and affordable. Yearly fare rises will force people off.

I am delighted that, with this in mind, this Government is investing more in the railways than any other since the Victorian era. Over 800 miles of rail electrification has been committed to, the last Government managed just 9.

And with Crossrail going ahead and HS2 coming down the line, we have the ambitious projects needed to drive up capacity and efficiency in the long-term, and drive down costs in the long-term: cost-savings which should be passed on to passengers.

Clearly, times are tight. But if the chancellor can afford to scrap planned fuel duty rises, and drop the fares cap by 2% this year, he can afford to drop it by another 2% and bring fares down in real terms.

Coupled with the Coalition’s investment program, this could truly bring about a revolution on our railways which will serve our country now and in the future.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email us directly at opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com

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