Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Rail subsidies

Railway funding is a mess – and I don’t mean HS2, I mean the meat and drink lines.

Another small example of this is Northern Rail changing the rules for “off-peak” travel – which stands to catch out a lot of occasional travellers.

The message is that occasional travellers are not really wanted and are only there to be milked. This is foolish because the “occasional traveller” is making a discretionary trip that can be abandoned in favour of either some other “day out” or a different means of travel.

Funding of the railways is confused. Subsidies seem to favour:

  • London and the South East – thereby increasing the overheating problems in that region
  • Middle Class commuters – thereby redistributing from non-rail-users and poorer commuters – who pay their taxes but travel by bus.

And yet subsidies are half-hearted – neither making rail travel available to a wide group of potential travellers, nor minimising the cost to the exchequer and taxpayer.

Continuing with the current example:

Why has Northern Rail cheese-pared off-peak travel? Their website says:

The changes are being made after the Department for Transport asked Northern to look at several options to help reduce subsidy as part of its new franchise agreement.

The change to off-peak tickets is the only option that has been taken forward and will be used to reduce the cost of the railway to taxpayers by reducing subsidy to Northern.
Northern Rail website : Off-peak travel is changing

The change is piecemeal applying at different times to different parts of the network.

Evening peak restrictions will apply from Monday 8 September 2014 for all journeys wholly within the Transport for Greater Manchester, Travel South Yorkshire and Metro (West Yorkshire) areas. Also included are lines radiating out of Manchester and Leeds, and on the Newcastle to Hexham line.

From Monday 8 September off-peak tickets will no longer be able to be used at peak times during weekday evenings on local rail services in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire from 16.01 – 18.29. The change will also apply to services between Hexham and Newcastle from 16.01 – 17.59.
ibid

There is little rhyme or reason – other than playing with times and routes to try and make up some mythical figure that the Department of Transport has asked for. It further obfuscates ticketing – a problem that non-regular users have struggled with since privatisation.

So will I still make the occasional trip into a regional centre by train? Will I fret about getting back before the restrictions or suffer a few hours delay if I am a bit late in starting my return journey? Will I worry about getting caught out and being embarrassingly forced to pay a penalty fare – or worse? Or will I just pay extra for an unrestricted ticket? Or might I use the bus – or drive?

Most of the trips impacted by these changes are discretionary and alternatives are available.

If I become a perpetual non-user of rail services, will I continue to support the idea of subsidising rail services or will I be happy to see them driven into disuse by a thousand cuts?

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One thought on “Rail subsidies

  1. The argument against subsidies for railways is a bit of a joke really. If a new motorway is built, a bypass constructed or even existing roads substantially altered, what is that other than it is a subsidy for motorists?

    The politicians and planners have got it all wrong, and from more than one angle.

    1) By continually trying to concentrate jobs in London and to a lesser extent the other larger cities, particularly Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds, then the more infrastructure and rolling stock is needed to get people in and out by train. The answer to the London issue is to continue to throw more and more money at it, whereas with the other cities the answer is to make a few bizarre alterations at as low cost as possible, but in the main to retain inadequate infrastructure and even more inadequate rolling stock, the latter often being cast-offs from London. This results in long periods of the middle of the day with very little use.

    2) Planning for railways only ever seems to be for the benefit of commuters. For anyone who fancies a holiday or even a day trip, the options are woefully inadequate and invariably very expensive. Though there are some advance fares to encourage travel off peak, these are far more available on journeys to and from London than any other route, with most east-west journeys having very few advance fare options at all, and the north-south routes are also far more heavily marketed.

    3) The fare structure is far too complicated. Many people have reached the stage that it is easier to get into the car for a day out that try to work out the pricing structure of train journeys.

    4) Those responsible for the rail industry seem obsessed with fast journey times for the benefit of a few people. Many of the new ‘improvements’ will indeed see faster journey times, but often at the expense of no longer calling at certain stations. This will almost certainly be the case when HS2 is up and running, with a few people who happen to live in the right place seeing improved journey times, but the rest of the network will see longer journeys particularly on the main lines.

    In conclusion I say we should have far more subsidies for rail use, but used mainly for the leisure industry in order to encourage off peak use, which requires only staffing as an extra cost and the infrastructure and rolling stock is already there and grossly underused during the day. Perhaps cancelling a few road building schemes will provide the funds.

    The other step to take is to reduce the need for people to make unnecessary commuting and business journeys. It’s very likely that most of those business trips to London are probably not necessary, and removing them from the equation would solve the peak time capacity problem at a stroke. Reducing commuting would also have the benefit of giving a lot of people a couple of hours of their life back to them every single weekday.

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