At the start of this year, rail fares increased, as they do every year, making it harder and harder for users of the rail service. The problem is that successive governments haven’t been interested in keeping people using the trains. Currently the government pays 32% of the total railways bill but they want it to be 25%, putting more of the burden onto passengers (see above link), which is clearly moving in the wrong direction. Compared with other countries in Europe, our rail fares are already very expensive. There are complicated discount rates if you book in advance for journeys on off-peak trains, but this isn’t at all helpful for most commuters, and isn’t a particularly fair system anyway. Those who travel at peak times have to endure the most crowded trains, and pay the highest rates, and are effectively subsidising those who are able to travel when they please on emptier trains.
Considering the size of the UK, it becomes clearer how poor our rail service is. We have a high population density, making it far cheaper per head to keep up a reasonable rail network than most other countries, so it should be far easier for the government to subsidise than with other countries.
Travel by rail needs to be encouraged more. To decrease carbon dioxide emissions, pollution in general, as well as congestion on our roads, the government should be encouraging more public transport use, and for this to happen we need a cheaper and better service. What we have at the moment is completely unacceptable, and the idea that the government wants to contribute less than it currently does is appalling. For a start, public transport should be nationalised. The changes required to our rail system need to come from the government; changes should not be driven by the desires of profit-making companies.
We need to get away from the idea that the car is the default mode of travel. Public transport needs to be cheaper, run more frequently and for longer hours, and have wider geographical coverage. This will require more investment in rail infrastructure, which will obviously take a lot of time and money. But trains are only one part of the solution. We need to nationalise the whole of public transport, including buses. Yes, buses are polluting, but less so than the same number of passengers in individual cars. A cheaper and better bus service is part of the solution to remove cars from the road, and would be relatively simple to implement as it does not require building such an infrastructure first. Buses are also a more realistic solution for small towns and villages where travel by rail is less realistic.
This needs to be more than simply responding to demand that currently exists. The idea is to create demand by improving public transport to the extent that it becomes the cheaper and more convenient option for most journeys when compared to driving. Many people don’t use public transport now because it is inadequate. There are a lot of people who like to drive, certainly, but there are also many people who do not like to drive but feel forced into doing so because public transport is not fit for purpose. There are also many people who cannot drive, who therefore have their travel options severely limited.
You only have to drive from one town to the adjacent town in rush hour to see how ridiculous the situation is. So many people are making almost exactly the same journey but in hundreds of different vehicles, all creating pollution, all contributing to global warming and all congesting the roads, and quite often all travelling rather slowly. This isn’t an attack on car users. This is about giving them a realistic and cheaper alternative that would in many cases cause them to willingly give up the car for the daily commute.
I live in the Braintree constituency in Essex, and the train service here is awful. Trains to and from Braintree are hourly for most of the day, although it stretches to approximately every three quarters of an hour during rush hour. The last train to Braintree is also very early as well. For example, on weekdays, the last train leaves London Liverpool Street at 23:18 compared to 00:46 if you are going to Chelmsford or Colchester. This is a difference of nearly an hour and a half.
The poor service to Braintree is partly because Braintree station is on a branch line with just one track, so only one train can be between Braintree and Witham (where it branches off) at any one time. But since it can be every three quarters of an hour during rush hour, they clearly aren’t running at full capacity for most of the day. But even that isn’t enough. Really it needs a half-hourly service. And presumably they don’t want to send trains down the branch line late at night if they can get away with it.
There has been a lot of talk about building a “Cressing loop”, where an extra lane of track would be made to allow trains to pass each other at Cressing, which is about halfway between Witham and Braintree. This way there could be more than one train at a time on the branch line, allowing for a half-hourly service, and hopefully a service that runs later. It has been talked about for years, but nothing has been done, although there have been recent reports that it might happen. But this is an essential improvement that should really have been made years ago.
It is also not enough on its own to have transport running reasonably frequently. There needs to be coordination. I live in Rayne, which is a village about two miles from Braintree rail station. If I want to use public transport for my journey, I have to first get the bus into Braintree before getting the train. But they’re run by different companies and don’t tie up remotely well, which results in a lot of waiting around. Even if I wanted to get another bus from Braintree to, for example, Chelmsford, they still don’t tie in which each other, so there is no less waiting. So, of course it’s far more convenient for people to all get in their own individual cars, to all make the same journey separately, to create pollution and congestion, and to contribute to climate change. This is obviously just a very small cross section of public transport in the UK. Many places, particularly rural areas, have it far worse. But this is why money needs to be spent on public transport.
Where possible, better than trains or buses is walking or cycling. For longer journeys, these aren’t feasible, but in many cases people are discouraged from walking or cycling because the journey is perceived to be too dangerous. Many people who want to cycle are put off by the fact that roads are primarily designed for cars, and simply not safe enough for cyclists. Pedestrians often find themselves walking on narrow roads with no pavement.
We need to bring in more pedestrian and cycle routes, so that pedestrians and cyclists can complete their journeys with minimal contact with motorised traffic. Main roads could have such routes running parallel. Cyclists and pedestrians are far better bedfellows than cyclists and motorists, as long as the paths are wide enough. In the Netherlands they have separate cycle paths, which aren’t just a bit of paint on the same road the cars go on like we have here, and while they don’t generally have shared pedestrian/cycle paths, where there is no pavement, pedestrians can use the safer cycle path rather than the road designed for motor vehicles. In the UK, pedestrians and cyclists are in most cases a mere afterthought.
Obviously these proposed improvements would cost a lot of money, and it would have to come from somewhere. But as I have argued previously, higher taxes for those who can afford it is not something we should be afraid of. According to this website the government spends £20 billion of our taxes on transport a year. This is less than half of what is spent on defence and is less than 3% of total public spending. In the general scheme of things, I don’t think that this is very much, and I think it could easily, and indeed should, be a lot higher.