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.