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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Here’s why we’re using a car wash to drill into the world’s highest glacier on Everest

Everest. Image: Getty.

For nearly 100 years, Mount Everest has been a source of fascination for explorers and researchers alike. While the former have been determined to conquer “goddess mother of the world” – as it is known in Tibet – the latter have worked to uncover the secrets that lie beneath its surface.

Our research team is no different. We are the first group trying to develop understanding of the glaciers on the flanks of Everest by drilling deep into their interior.

We are particularly interested in Khumbu Glacier, the highest glacier in the world and one of the largest in the region. Its source is the Western Cwm of Mount Everest, and the glacier flows down the mountain’s southern flanks, from an elevation of around 7,000 metres down to 4,900 metres above sea level at its terminus (the “end”).

Though we know a lot about its surface, at present we know just about nothing about the inside of Khumbu. Nothing is known about the temperature of the ice deeper than around 20 metres beneath the surface, for example, nor about how the ice moves (“deforms”) at depth.

Khumbu is covered with a debris layer (which varies in thickness by up to four metres) that affects how the surface melts, and produces a complex topography hosting large ponds and steep ice cliffs. Satellite observations have helped us to understand the surface of high-elevation debris-covered glaciers like Khumbu, but the difficult terrain makes it very hard to investigate anything below that surface. Yet this is where the processes of glacier movement originate.

Satellite image of Khumbu glacier in September 2013. Image: NASA.

Scientists have done plenty of ice drilling in the past, notably into the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. However this is a very different kind of investigation. The glaciers of the Himalayas and Andes are physically distinctive, and supply water to millions of people. It is important to learn from Greenland and Antarctica, – where we are finding out how melting ice sheets will contribute to rising sea levels, for example – but there we are answering different questions that relate to things such as rapid ice motion and the disintegration of floating ice shelves. With the glaciers we are still working on obtaining fairly basic information which has the capacity to make substantial improvements to model accuracy, and our understanding of how these glaciers are being, and will be, affected by climate change.

Under pressure

So how does one break into a glacier? To drill a hole into rock you break it up mechanically. But because ice has a far lower melting point, it is possible to melt boreholes through it. To do this, we use hot, pressurised water.

Conveniently, there is a pre-existing assembly to supply hot water under pressure – in car washes. We’ve been using these for over two decades now to drill into ice, but our latest collaboration with manufacturer Kärcher – which we are now testing at Khumbu – involves a few minor alterations to enable sufficient hot water to be pressurised for drilling higher (up to 6,000 metres above sea level is envisioned) and possibly deeper than before. Indeed, we are very pleased to reveal that our recent fieldwork at Khumbu has resulted in a borehole being drilled to a depth of about 190 metres below the surface.

Drilling into the glacier. Image: author provided.

Even without installing experiments, just drilling the borehole tells us something about the glacier. For example, if the water jet progresses smoothly to its base then we know the ice is uniform and largely debris-free. If drilling is interrupted, then we have hit an obstacle – likely rocks being transported within the ice. In 2017, we hit a layer like this some 12 times at one particular location and eventually had to give up drilling at that site. Yet this spatially-extensive blockage usefully revealed that the site was carrying a thick layer of debris deep within the ice.

Once the hole has been opened up, we take a video image – using an optical televiewer adapted from oil industry use by Robertson Geologging – of its interior to investigate the glacier’s internal structure. We then install various probes that provide data for several months to years. These include ice temperature, internal deformation, water presence measurements, and ice-bed contact pressure.


All of this information is crucial to determine and model how these kinds of glaciers move and melt. Recent studies have found that the melt rate and water contribution of high-elevation glaciers are currently increasing, because atmospheric warming is even stronger in mountain regions. However, a threshold will be reached where there is too little glacial mass remaining, and the glacial contribution to rivers will decrease rapidly – possibly within the next few decades for a large number of glaciers. This is particularly significant in the Himalayas because meltwater from glaciers such as Khumbu contributes to rivers such as the Brahmaputra and the Ganges, which provide water to billions of people in the foothills of the Himalaya.

Once we have all the temperature and tilt data, we will be able to tell how fast, and the processes by which, the glacier is moving. Then we can feed this information into state-of-the-art computer models of glacier behaviour to predict more accurately how these societally critical glaciers will respond as air temperatures continue to rise.

The ConversationThis is a big and difficult issue to address and it will take time. Even once drilled and imaged, our borehole experiments take several months to settle and run. However, we are confident that these data, when available, will change how the world sees its highest glacier.

Katie Miles, PhD Researcher, Aberystwyth University and Bryn Hubbard, Professor of Glaciology, Aberystwyth University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.