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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A warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.