Trains are a rich man’s toy, says transport secretary

British railways are a “rich man’s toy”, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has told MPs.  He was responding to a question about regulating fare prices on the planned high speed rail link so that it would be a “railway for everybody”.  He said it was an “uncomfortable fact” that trains were already used by the better-off and said some fares were “eye-wateringly expensive”.

Mr Hammond appeared before the Commons transport committee on Tuesday to answer questions on High Speed 2 (HS2) – the planned line between London and Birmingham with a possible future extension to northern England and Scotland.

It’s an uncomfortable fact that the railway is already, relatively, a rich man’s toy. The whole railway. People who use the railway, on average, have significantly higher incomes than the population as a whole. Simple fact. The assumptions underlying the pattern of use of HS2 assume similar pricing to the West Coast Main Line, which ranges from eye-wateringly expensive to really quite reasonable if you dig around and buy in advance. And therefore the assumption that the socio-economic mix of passengers will be broadly similar to those currently using the West Coast Main Line.

The transport secretary later told the BBC he had not been talking about the cost of rail tickets but had answered a question about whether HS2 would be a rich man’s toy “perhaps slightly flippantly” and had pointed out that people who used the railways were usually better off than average workers.

“Is the railway expensive? Yes it is. Is that because we have too high costs in our railway? Yes it is and the government is determined that with the rail companies and Network Rail we will tackle excessive costs in the railway and get the costs of running our railway down so it becomes more affordable for taxpayers and fare payers alike.”

The government changed the formula for calculating rail fare increases from 2012.  For the past few years the formula for fare increases has generally been RPI inflation plus 1%, but for the next three years it is RPI plus 3% – pushing the cost of season tickets up by an average of 8% in the new year.

This all leads to some interesting thoughts:

  • Surely the transport secrtary must reconsider the steep fare rises currently planned by government.
  • It is clear from his own department’s statistics that 5% of those in the highest income group use rail as their main transport mode, compared to 2% for those in the lowest income group.
  • But, that the car drops from 49% to 24% and so must equally be seen as a rich person’s toy too.
  • This should lead the government and local authorities to find ways to support affordable local transport, and one of the best ways to do this is to develop bicycle loan schemes and invest mroe heavily in cycle infrastructure.

 

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