No, increasing rail fares isn’t ‘progressive’: the case for investing in transport

Ticket machines at London Bridge station. Image: Getty.

With the New Year came the annual ticket price rises for rail customers, who saw the cost of their journeys climb by 3.4 per cent. But not everyone thought this rise was unfair: once again, some argued that increasing ticket prices is actually “progressive”. Since rail travellers are ove-rrepresented among higher earners, this argument goes, it would be unfair to make lower income taxpayers, who are unlikely to use rail, pay the cost. But hiking ticket prices is definitely not progressive, and it’s worth restating the case why.

First, the tyranny of averages. The headline statistic of higher earners who use the train more disguises the breadth of rail users from all parts of society. According to the Department for Transport, 43 per cent of people in routine and manual occupations had travelled by train in the last 12 months.

Furthermore, if the middle class is over-represented in its use of rail services, this is an argument for expanding access to them, rather than for increasing financial barriers. People decide how to travel based on time, efficiency and cost constraints. It’s not a matter of taste, like going to a restaurant or seeing a film. Rail often offers time, efficiency and reliability benefits over other modes of transport – and expanding access to rapid transport networks is key to improving access to employment for people around the country.

But the argument for fair access isn’t only economic. The ability to travel is fundamentally about freedom – to make choices about where you work, who you visit, and how you spend your time. When lower earners are forced to take lengthy and convoluted journeys, they are giving up time that higher earners get to keep. And when they can’t travel at all, they’re deprived if freedom of choice. Lower earners must make lengthy and convoluted journeys by other means, or not travel at all. It is not morally justifiable to ask that the poor give up even more to travel because rail fares are out of reach.


It is also manifestly untrue to say that, if passengers aren’t paying, the burden is falling on the taxpayers who don’t use the service. Most of the London commuter routes actually return money to the Treasury: the highest-subsidy lines are remote rural lines in the North, Wales, and Scotland. Putting commuter fares up further isn’t rebalancing, it’s price-gouging.

If governments need to spend money, they have a choice as to how they fund that. It is a fundamental characteristic of public transport that it is not very good at making money directly. This is because the financial gain goes to a much larger range of groups than just passengers.

And these others are ‘free riders’, benefitting from the gain that others have paid for. Businesses are more profitable if they have access to a wider pool of skills. Landowners around stations see the value of their fields skyrocket. The government sees more tax revenue from those businesses, which is the reason it is prepared to fund Crossrail. The Treasury specifically calculates how infrastructure schemes have wider economic benefits (that is, wider than just those felt by passengers) when looking whether to fund schemes.

Incidentally – all these arguments apply just as much to bus services, which are also criminally underfunded, at great cost to local economies and standards of living.

So instead of turning the screw on commuters further, isn’t it time we looked at how those who also benefit from transport services can pay their fair share?

Tom Follett works on devolution policy at the think tank ResPublica.

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How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.


Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.

 

The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.